One of our own, Donald Morton of Victor, has reinvigorated a subdivision application that was first filed in 2006. The application for Legacy Ranch covers 395 acres between Stevensville and Florence, bordered on the west by Eastside Highway and directly across from the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge. When fully built, it will have 619 new residences, over 1700 new people. It will be larger than Stevensville. Over 300 new school children will issue forth each day to Lone Rock or Stevensville schools. Traffic on Eastside Highway will more than double. There is unanimous community opposition.
Other than the fortunate minority born in the Bitterroot and a few coming here for employment (primarily at GSK and RML), most Ravalli County residents chose to come to the Bitterroot for lifestyle reasons. The simple truth is that our valley is not a noted source of employment. So the people who move here come for many of the same reasons: open spaces, a rural character, beautiful mountains and scenery, abundant wildlife, unparalleled mountain sports and access to world class fishing and hunting. The Legacy Ranch subdivision is a threat to most of these values. It is flat out contrary to the character of the Bitterroot Valley. This kind of development will destroy our home as The Last Best Place.
But Legacy Ranch is more than a philosophical affront. It is an economic threat to Ravalli County. The residents who have consciously selected the Bitterroot as a place to live did so to avoid exactly the sort of environmental degradation, congestion, pollution and overcrowding that Legacy Ranch proposes. This subdivision, and others like it, will destroy the very reasons most of us selected the Bitterroot as a place to live.
A number of us are retired, and more of us should be encouraged to move here. We are the best economic value possible to Ravalli County. We pose no burdens on the schools, little burdens on social services, support the growing medical establishment and shop locally. We also volunteer extensively, pay taxes and vote. And why did we come to the Bitterroot? To escape the sort of development that Legacy Ranch poses. We had hoped we left this sort of environmental and social disaster behind us.
And please note that Legacy Ranch will not be a retirement center. Retirees want to escape from that congestion. Legacy will be a place for younger, perhaps first time homeowners attracted by the cheaper prices there. These folks utilize the schools, social services, police, etc. to a much greater degree than retirees. Numerous studies document that residential units, on average, do not pay in taxes enough to pay for the governmental costs of servicing them. Legacy Ranch will be an economic drag on current resources, an increased tax burden to existing residents and a deterrent to those who we ought to encourage to move here.
The simple truth is that Legacy Ranch will begin the process of turning the Bitterroot Valley into Los Angeles. At one time, Los Angeles was surrounded by beautiful countryside. Then developers came in and turned it into the smog ridden, crime infested, congested city it is. We have a number of refugees from LA and other large metropolitan areas living here now. So, the economic message is this: do not kill the golden goose.
THE TRUTH ABOUT STAGING THE DEVELOPMENT
Applicant has proposed the Legacy Ranch development of 619 housing units on 395 acres as a phased or staged development over 36 years. This is mere window dressing without substance. No approval of any subdivision application in Ravalli County’s history has ever been conditioned on predetermined build out in stages or over years. There have been conditions posed on stages as built but never were the stages mandated by a certain date and not before. Given the philosophical predilections of the current occupants of the Board of County Commissioners, it is difficult to believe such conditioning would happen in this case. Moreover, it is very possible that there is no basis in law to impose such a requirement.
Instead, one should view this application as a potential build out of all 619 residential units shortly after approval. In the best light, the proposal to build out over years may be a planning tool for the developer. In the worst light, staging the proposal to the public is a cynical lulling of concerns of the subdivision’s impact.
The applicant for Legacy Ranch points out the blessings of more than adequate ground water flowing through the property, allowing it to provide potable well water to all residences and businesses. One neighbor has stated that there is a huge underground river flowing through the property. This may be, in fact, a curse.
Sewage is to be provided by a combination of level two mini-treatment plants and septic systems. The wastewater from all these users will be poured into the ground. Level two treatment is not complete treatment. Even the level two treated effluent will contain birth control chemicals, Prozac, Viagra and a host of other chemicals people use. These will join the underground river and flow into Lee Metcalf and, ultimately, the Bitterroot River. There is not enough barrier to staunch this seepage and flow. It is easy to visualize the pond directly across the Eastside Highway from the proposed development, part of the Lee Metcalf refuge, becoming a stinking cesspool of inadequately treated sewage and medical chemicals.
In addition to the ground water effects, Legacy Ranch will have significant adverse effects on the Lee Metcalf and the Bitterroot River from surface water runoff. The amount of paving over of previously permeable surfaces will increase the surface water flows. And when a Legacy resident pours his dirty crankcase oil down the nearest storm sewer, it will end up in the Lee Metcalf and the Bitterroot River.
LEVEL TWO TREATMENT PLANTS
If the Ravalli County planning staff took the time to contact Montana’s Public Service Commission, and (this is important) spoke to someone who dealt in facts, not political rhetoric, they would learn that these level two sewage treatment plants are plagued with problems in other Montana subdivisions. So long as unexamined, level two treatment plants appear to solve the vexing problem of what to do with all that sewage folks generate. The problem is, they do not work nearly as well as the developer would have you believe. Which then raises the question of what happens if there is a failure. Remember Lee Metcalf and the Bitterroot River across the street? They will receive all the raw sewage.
There is another issue with level two treatment plants. They will be turned over and owned and operated by the new residents of Legacy Ranch. The developer is going to wash his hands of responsibility. There will be no full time engineering staff or any staff for that matter. If issues arise, they will fall on the unsuspecting residents. And costs of repair can be staggering.
A few years ago, the Corvallis School District commissioned a professional study of the impact on Corvallis schools by new development in its district. This was done in the vain hope that Ravalli County would adopt developer paid impact fees for each new home built here, as permitted by state law. Of course, the developers killed it. But the facts developed by the study are extremely relevant here. And remember, as you think about this, that all these new 619 Legacy Ranch residences could be built out at once.
The Corvallis study found that each new residence built cost the school district more than $6,800 in facility costs, including new classrooms, lunch room space and gymnasium space and buses. This does not count costs of books or salaries of new teachers required by the influx of new students. The Florence School District did a similar study and the cost was over $10,000 per new residence. Legacy Ranch proposes 619 new residences. At $6,800 per residence, the impact of Legacy Ranch will be more than $4.2 million on the Lone Rock and Stevensville schools. Plus books and plus new teachers. New taxes from these new residences do not even completely pay ongoing operational costs of schooling our children. They certainly do not pay anything toward the huge capital costs of accommodating new school children.
Oh, yes, the County Commissioners routinely require developers to pay a fee to mitigate impacts caused by a subdivision. The school mitigation fee has historically been $150 or $200 per residential unit. But this mitigation money cannot be used for capital costs. It is designed to “soften” the fact that new residences typically do not pay real estate taxes (schools’ share is about $1,300) for up to two years from occupancy. So the Legacy Ranch developer will pay, maybe, $200 to offset up to $2,600 in lost revenue to the schools while still needing to service the new students. And there will be nothing to offset the $4.2 million in actual hard capital costs caused by the new students. Who pays for this? The taxpayers of Ravalli County, you, not the developer.
Tom Reed, manager of the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, has eloquently addressed the unmitigatable, adverse effects on wildlife both in and around the Refuge posed by the Legacy Ranch proposal. That, in itself, is sufficient and necessary grounds to kill Legacy Ranch.
Query whether the County’s planning staff contacted the Montana Department of Transportation? If over 9,200 daily trips are added to Eastside Highway from Legacy Ranch, on top of the 7,000 plus already using that road, do we trigger a requirement to widen Eastside Highway to four lanes and broaden the shoulders? Are we going to need a traffic light at the intersections of Eastside and Three Mile Road and Ambrose, etc? If so, is the developer going to pay for this?
The impacted section of Eastside Highway is already a dangerous killer of people and animals. More than doubling the daily use will only increase the carnage. Plus, animals owned by the residents of Legacy Ranch will cross Eastside in attempts to get to the Lee Metcalf Refuge.
Our law enforcement and fire fighting professionals have stated that Legacy Ranch cannot be provided adequate police and fire protection, given its location in the Valley. The Lone Rock area is served by a volunteer fire department. Asking them to take on service to a new city bigger than Stevi is ridiculous. We will need more Sheriff’s deputies and a new satellite station. Who pays? You do, not the developer.
The public record is stuffed with community opposition to Legacy Ranch. More needs to be registered. This is not a political party issue. It is about saving our home from being Los Angelized. If this kind of threat to our Bitterroot Valley is not enough to get you involved, then what ever will be? If Legacy is approved, the flood gates will open. There is no other Last Best Place. Protect the Bitterroot Valley.