By Michael Howell
One of the largest subdivision proposals in the valley to come forth in years, the Legacy Ranch subdivision is being considered by the Ravalli County Planning Board at a meeting scheduled for this evening, Wednesday, March 13 at 6 p.m. at Lone Rock School. This meeting is a continuation of the Planning Board hearing held last Wednesday, March 6 at which the board took public comment concerning the subdivision proposal. The commissioners’ meeting room was packed and the public spoke, without exception, against the proposal.
Located along the Eastside Highway between Porter Hill Road and Dry Gulch Road, the subdivision would divide 368 acres into 509 lots. County Planner Kevin Waller told those at the meeting that the subdivision would be comprised of 609 residential living units and 20 commercial units. It would involve three public septic systems in different areas and 180 individual septic systems. He said the developer proposes the establishment of water and sewer districts to operate the sewer and water systems. A public water system is proposed for the entire subdivision. The subdivision would be installed in 15 phases over 36 years.
The Planning Department staff submitted an analysis of the subdivision’s impacts on the state’s criteria that must be considered when denying or approving a subdivision and in each case drew the conclusion that the negative impacts the subdivision would have could be sufficiently mitigated by proposed conditions. The Staff Report recommended approval of the subdivision proposal with 59 specific conditions of approval and over 30 other final plat requirements.
The development, at full build-out, will add approximately 320 students to the Lone Rock/Stevensville School districts, an additional 9,271 vehicle trips per day to the Eastside Highway, and increase the population in the area by close to 1,700 new residents.
Representing the developer, Sunnyside Ordchards, LLC, was Jason Rice of Territorial Landworks. He said that the developer has been at this for eight years, has invested a lot and believes it is time to go through with the process even if it is not yet time to put any new lots on the market. He noted that the developer was offering to make some monetary donations to mitigate impacts on some services such as the schools and the Sheriff’s Office. He said in response to concerns about added nutrients to the groundwater from so many septic systems that, compared to the past agricultural practices on the place, the nutrient load was 150% greater now than it would be once it was developed.
Public comment on the proposal was entirely negative and many concerns were expressed about its effect on the rural community, water availability, potential contamination of the ground water, the effects of increased traffic, and, repeatedly, its potential negative effects on the adjacent Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge and the Bitterroot River.
Lone Rock resident and former County Commissioner Jim Rokosch said that the Lone Rock community was “the oldest rural community in the state,” having formed a rural school district in 1885. He said that residents in the area have had over a century to form a town, but have not. He said people live there because they liked the rural quality of life and the rural character of the area and want to see it maintained.
He expressed concerns about the process since the planning staff had already made a recommendation of approval that was sent to the county commissioners preceding any public comment. He questioned whether the staff was ready to accept public comment that could potentially change their recommendation or if their mind was already made up. He said it was important because the staff’s recommendation carries a lot of weight with the county commissioners.
Rokosch also had concerns about water availability and the effect upon existing water rights. He said if individual wells were installed, as the state’s exempt well law allows, the subdivision would draw approximately 5.09 million gallons per day. He said this potential needs to be analyzed.
He asked the commissioners to make following the phasing plan mandatory. Otherwise, if the real estate market were to boom like it has in the past, the development could go in faster than the phasing limitations and swamp the community with negative impacts.
He submitted a copy of the recently adopted Comprehensive Management Plan for the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge and urged the Planning Board members to read it and weigh carefully the potential effects of this subdivision on the Refuge.
Longtime Stevensville journalist and publisher Dale Burk questioned the name of the subdivision proposal, asking what “legacy” it might be referring to.
“Not the legacy of Lee Metcalf,” said Burk. He said what we were really being presented with was a legacy of unanswered questions. He said the right to a clean and healthy environment, as guaranteed in the Montana Constitution, is a legacy that needs to be maintained. He noted the distance from the subdivision to the Bitterroot River was 406 feet. He wondered how long it took pollutants to travel that far. He said what we suffer from is “a legacy of incompetent government.” He said there has been no analysis of the true costs of this subdivision to the public.
Sharon Renfro said that the no-build zones, restrictions on fireplaces and lighting requirements should be placed in the covenants and not simply sent out as notices of encouragement. She also noted that, based on 2010 census data that suggests an average household of 2.5 people per household, potentially 1,700 people would be living in the subdivision. She said, based on a recent Rand McNally map, the proposed subdivision would be bigger than two-thirds of the towns in the state of Montana and have a population larger than seven Montana counties.
“But these other towns have services like sewer treatment facilities, police, postal service, and schools,” said Renfro.
She said that Humane Society information suggest that the subdivision is likely to hold 379 dogs and 461 cats as pets.
“Right across the street from a national wildlife refuge?” she said.
She noted that recently traffic on the Eastside Highway southeast of Florence was measured at about 7,000 vehicle trips per day. She said the subdivision would add over 9,000 vehicle trips per day. She noted that was a 132% increase in traffic on a dangerous road.
“This thing doesn’t fit in our environment. Please do not perpetrate this upon us,” she concluded.
Shean McElravy, a neighboring landowner, expressed concerns about the potential of pharmaceuticals polluting the groundwater. He noted that although the 180 individual septics planned and the three multiple party septic systems planned do lower nitrate and phosphorus pollution, they do not stop the infiltration of pharmaceutical drugs into the groundwater. He is afraid it might contaminate wells. He referred to a study of wells in Helena by the DEQ that found pharmaceutical contamination in 13 of 22 wells surveyed.
Jeff Johnson urged the Board not to accept “cash-in-lieu” as a form of mitigation since it really doesn’t necessarily mitigate the issues identified.
Tom Reed, Director of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, said, “It is difficult to imagine that a subdivision of this magnitude would be proposed in an agricultural landscape next to a National Wildlife Refuge. It appears that the value of the Refuge to the county and the region is not clearly understood.” Reed said that the Montana Office of Tourism had conducted a survey that ranked the Refuge as one of the top three reasons for people visiting the Bitterroot Valley and that the refuge last year hosted 225,000 visitors. He said analysis shows that the Lee Metcalf Refuge adds over $15 million annually to the local economy from non-resident non-consumptive users, nearly $4 million from non-resident hunters and fishermen, nearly $356,000 from resident non-consumptive users and about $140,000 from resident anglers and hunters. He referred to other forms of contribution to the local economy from spending by the Refuge and its staff as well as payment-in-lieu-of-taxes for the land and the economic benefits of the wetlands and riparian areas the Refuge provides.
“This economic value is identified because it will be greatly eroded if the proposed subdivision is realized next to the Refuge’s border,” said Reed.
Reed also noted that waterfowl and many other forms of wildlife such as eagles, hawks, cranes, deer and elk have been observed using the neighboring agricultural land. He said development at the edge of the Refuge is already compromising its ability to provide a haven for wildlife. He mentioned the potential negative impacts on the Refuge in terms of potential water quality and quantity degradation, the negative effect of lighting on animals in the Refuge, and the negative effects of increased predation by cats, trespass by people and traffic on the road where animals cross.
Reed concludes that if all these potential negative effects on the state’s criteria are considered, “it is unclear how the proposed project could be deemed sufficient.”
Kelsey Milner submitted a 2008 Land Suitability Analysis commissioned by the county that ranks the area high in agriculture but low for dwelling units and asked the Board to consider it.
Kathy Roubik questioned whether leaving all the mitigation responsibilities to a Homeowners Association was appropriate since some of them fail, leaving the mitigation unenforced.
Lori Rokosch questioned whether the effects on the Quick Response Unit for the Lone Rock area had been analyzed and mitigated.
Tonight’s meeting at Lone Rock School is a continuation of this Planning Board meeting and is designed to accommodate the rest of the public comment. Another meeting is scheduled for March 20 at 3 p.m. for the Planning Board to deliberate and perhaps decide on a recommendation to make to the county commissioners, who will make the final decision on the subdivision.