Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County this week said it could have done a better job disclosing one of its commissioner's involvement in a parcel of farmland where the collective owners sought and received a variance request from the county to open an agricultural business.

Commissioner Josh Slotnick on Thursday said the issue could have been avoided had he and others made it clearer that he had recused himself from any discussion or review around Corner Farm Village going back to last year, when he submitted a conflict-of-interest form.

“I didn't at all want to prejudice your decision making,” Slotnick told fellow commissioners on Thursday. “I also told everyone I wasn't going to be part of these meetings, because I didn't want my presence to prejudice this. This project was going to have to stand on its own or fall on its own.”

Members of the Planning and Zoning Commissioner, including Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Juanita Vero, recommended the county approve the variance request submitted by Corner Farm Village LLC at a meeting on Feb. 9.

Slotnick didn't attend the meeting and county officials never disclosed the fact that he was a business partner in the project. On Thursday, commissioners described it as an oversight and said they should have made it clear.

“We learned something here. It's an opportunity to do better in the future,” said Vero. “We should have announced at the meeting that you hadn't been physically present for any of the preliminary meetings and if you had been, you would have recused yourself. We could have done a better job.”

A business decision

Corner Farm Village sits off Third Street and includes 10 acres, most of which have been under production for years. Slotnick said he and his wife have been farming the property for at least 15 years and have been involved as a business in farming for close to 30.

Back in 2019, Slotnick said he received a call from the property owner who planned to sell and asked if they were interested in purchasing. Slotnick and his wife agreed to purchase the land but shortly after, a bidding war broke out, which increased the purchase price.

Slotnick said he had a short window to find a business partner to help secure the purchase.

“During that 48 hours, I never looked at what the zoning was. I didn't know it was actually two parcels and not just one,” he said. “My entire goal at that point was to keep our business intact.”

Corner Farm Village. (Google Earth)
Corner Farm Village. (Google Earth)

Last year, Missoula County approved a boundary line relocation to separate two acres of the property from the remaining eight, where agriculture is practiced.

It's on that smaller parcel where Slotnick and his business partners look to open an agricultural store to help sustain the business as a whole, including the farming operation.

The project wasn't controversial and no one voiced opposition, at least until the disclosure issue arose.

“I want to be really clear and say that myself and my wife are proud partners in Clark Fork Organics, a farm that's associated with Corner Farm Village,” Slotnick said. “We're also involved in what a lot of farms and ranches have to deal with, which is succession planning. This is how we're moving on to the next generation.”

Before Corner Farm Village went before the county, Slotnick filled out a conflict-of-interest form on Oct. 17, 2022 and recused himself from the county's decision-making process.

In the form, he disclosed his partnership in Corner Farm Village and wrote, “This year (within the next twelve months) CFV will come before the county with a boundary line relocation proposal. If the BLR is successful, CFV will also go before the Zoning and Board of Adjustment and ask for a variance to existing zoning. I will recuse myself from any decisions involving CFV.”

While Slotnick has been absent from any discussions regarding the project, Strohmaier and Vero said his role in the business had no bearing on their decision when reviewing and ultimately approving the zoning change.

“(Vero) and I subjected this to the same identical level of scrutiny as every other land-use proposal like this,” Strohmaier said. “That includes applying the very same review criteria and ensuring the same criteria are met.”

While Slotnick already has apologized for the confusion, he did so again on Thursday.

“I wish I had put the same amount of effort externally into telling the whole world this was happening. It would have been better had I done that,” he said.

County officials said in the future they may begin posting any conflict-of-interest forms for easy discovery and review by the public on the county website.