By Michael Howell
At a meeting held on April 17 and continued on the 18th, the Ravalli County Planning Board decided, on a 5-2 vote, to recommend to the Board of County Commissioners approval of the Legacy Ranch Subdivision, a 647-unit development proposed along the Eastside Highway north of Stevensville. Having received public input at meetings held in Hamilton and in the Lone Rock community, this meeting consisted simply of board considerations without any further public input. Five members of the Planning Board decided that the potentially significant negative impacts of the subdivision on the state’s six criteria had all been sufficiently mitigated.
One board member, Robert Myers, believed that the criteria of effects on public safety had not been mitigated. He felt that the developer needed to provide for more lighting in the subdivision for safety considerations, not necessarily on the walking paths, but on the sidewalks along the roadways. No one seconded Myers’ motion to require the lighting, however. In the end, Myers insisted that he could not go along with the subdivision proposal if it left people walking in the dark on the public sidewalks within the subdivision.
Another board member, Howard Eldridge, had previously expressed his frustration, during the consideration of each criteria, at not being able to address certain issues such as the effects of the draw-down of the subdivision’s wells on neighboring property owners and the effects of the proposed sanitary systems. He expressed concern that the board was neglecting its responsibility to consider the significant negative impacts on certain criteria by passing the buck to some state agency and approving the water system and the sewer system “on the condition that it is approved by the state.” He said he could not put his name on such an approval. He said he would feel a lot better if the developer would bring in the required permits so that he could examine the information submitted that was pertinent to the decision before going along with it. The developer proposes three group treatment systems and 153 individual septics in the development.
Eldridge consistently declined to affirm that some of the criteria had been mitigated due to “an aggregate of uncertainties” about the actual facts. He also said that he believed in democracy and that, out of over 150 public comments on the subdivision, only one person had expressed support for it.
Another significant issue raised by Myers in consideration of the subdivision was the status of the ownership of the roads within the subdivision. Myers said that the county policy was to require that interior roads be open to the public but maintained privately. He said, according to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, if a homeowners association has responsibility for road maintenance, then the association is liable for accidents on the road, even if the roads are declared to be public, as in this case. Myers claimed that it left the person buying a lot in the subdivision holding a liability that could bankrupt them without adequate notice.
A motion was made and approved to ask the County Commissioners to request a delay from the developer to give the commission enough time to change the regulations that would require that the roads within the subdivision be public, but maintained by the homeowners. That motion was approved unanimously.
A subsequent motion was made requiring the developer to provide notification of potential liability for the roads to prospective buyers and requiring the homeowners association to hold enough insurance to cover its liability. This motion passed unanimously as well.
Other board members stated that the decisions about the impacts of the water and sewer system could only be made by competent professionals. The board, they argued, did not possess the necessary expertise to make such determinations, but, by conditioning it on the issuance of permits from DNRC and DEQ, the board would be assured of compliance with the law.
The developer proposed making a cash payment to the schools to mitigate the impacts of adding 2.5 students per household. The payments would be $500 per lot to the Lone Rock School District and $250 per lot to the Stevensville School District. The developer proposed to pay $370 per condominium unit to the Lone Rock School District and $240 per unit to Stevensville.
Although the developer had proposed to pay $100 per lot to the Sheriff’s Office to mitigate negative impacts on public safety, consultant Jason Rice said that no response was ever received from the Sheriff. The Planning Board did not make any requirement of the developer.
The Town of Stevensville had asked for $100 per lot to compensate for the impact on its services by subdivision residents but the Planning Board did not go along with that request.
The proposed development is adjacent to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge and Refuge officials have made it clear that they believe the negative impacts on the Refuge and on wildlife in general are very significant and have not been sufficiently mitigated.
The developer proposes covenants that would require that no dogs or cats be allowed to run loose and that lighting in the subdivision be pointed downward to prevent light pollution from disturbing animals on the Refuge. The Planning Board on a 5 to 2 vote found that the negative impacts on wildlife had been sufficiently mitigated.
After an on-site visit, the developer agreed to an extension of the deadline for completing the subdivision review. Therefore, the county commissioners’ April 25 public hearing on the subdivision has been rescheduled for Monday, June 3 at 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the commissioners’ meeting room and June 3 at 6 to 9 p.m. at Lone Rock School.