In the ongoing debate over gravel mining, a Gallatin District Court judge has ordered Gallatin County and three gravel operators to try and settle their differences prior to a Dec. 23 court hearing.

The three gravel operators — Cameron Springs, LLC; Spanish Peaks Sand and Gravel; and NOG LLC — filed suits against the County in June. They had received permits from the state in May to mine gravel in the Belgrade planning jurisdiction.

At the same time, Gallatin County imposed emergency interim zoning to control gravel mining countywide. But the mining operations contested the county’s ability to adopt such zoning and asked District Judge John Brown to declare the interim zoning “null and void” because the county failed to comply with state law, the lawsuits contended.

Also, the companies are asking the court to order the county to issue encroachment permits. Failure to do so amounts to a “taking without compensation,” lawyers for the mining operators said in court documents. The plaintiffs also seek damages, attorney fees and costs and “interest on the value of its taking.”

In his response brief, County Attorney Marty Lambert said the gravel miners are required to follow the conditional use permitting process the county adopted when it passed emergency interim zoning. Even though the industry received permits from the state one day prior to the county’s action, the regulations apply largely because a land use change had not occurred at the time the county passed the emergency zoning ordinance.

The CUP process would address a host of adverse effects of gravel mining, including traffic and roadway concerns. To date, two gravel pits have been awarded permits through the process.

But in his analysis, Judge Brown said Dec. 5 that the interim zoning regulations were not in effect, “let alone contemplated,” when all three gravel operations applied for encroachment permits. “Moreover, the permitting process set forth in Interim Zoning Regulations is separate from the application process for an encroachment permit,” he said.

This summer, the county put off issuing encroachment permits until Lambert drafted a legal opinion on the matter. Traditionally, the county road office required off-site mitigation plans before issuing encroachment permits.

But on June 25, Lambert questioned the legality of the longstanding process and, in turn, the county drafted an ordinance to address road impacts from all commercial development.

The commission unveiled the proposed ordinance in August, but after some debate from development interests, it was sent back for review by various county boards. Since then, the draft has not resurfaced.

Pursuant to Brown’s order, the two sides will meet Dec. 18 to mediate their issues, and the matter will go before Brown for hearing on Dec. 23, Lambert said.