By Michael Howell
At back to back meetings on Monday, June 3, one held at the County Commissioners meeting room in Hamilton and the next held that evening at Lone Rock School, a representative of Sunnyside Orchards LLC, Alexandra Morton, and engineering consultant Jason Rice of Territorial LandWorks, formally presented the Legacy Ranch subdivision proposal to the County Commissioners.
County Planner Kevin Waller described the subdivision proposal and summarized the planning staff report. The 400-acre parcel located between Porter Hill Road and Dry Gulch Road along the Eastside Highway is proposed to be divided into 509 lots including single family residential, condominiums and commercial units. The subdivision is proposed to take place in 15 phases over 30 years, with the first phase scheduled for completion by January 31, 2019. Phase 2 would be completed by 2023, and the remaining phases 3 to 15 every two years after that.
The total of 647 living units is estimated to add about 2.7 people per household to the population for a total of 1,725 new residents in the area at build-out. It is estimated to increase traffic on the Eastside Highway by 9,271 automobile trips per day. Residents of the subdivision will share a water system based on three communal wells. Lawns will be irrigated by existing water rights from a ditch and spring. Some areas of the subdivision will share community septic systems while over 200 homes will be on individual septics. The west boundary of the subdivision is located within 460 feet of the Bitterroot River and borders the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.
The Ravalli County Planning Board, on a 5 to 2 vote, recommended approval of the subdivision based on 69 conditions of approval, 35 notifications to new home owners, and 32 final plat requirements.
Engineering consultant Jason Rice emphasized what could be done on the property without going through subdivision review. He said the property was already divided into 36 parcels that could be developed without further review. If so, it would mean establishing eight new entrances onto the highway instead of the two entrances planned for the Legacy proposal.
He assured the public that the Department of Environmental Quality and the Montana Department of Transportation permit requirements would provide adequate protection for public safety and water quality and quantity concerns. Rice also noted that the developer had planned extensive highway improvements at the entranceways to the subdivision to facilitate traffic flows, however, those improvements may not be required if MDT proceeds with its plans to improve the highway along that stretch. He said the department has plans to widen the highway adding a 12-foot-wide turning lane with two 12-foot north/south travel lanes. He said shoulders were planned to be 4 to 5 feet wide with six to one side slopes.
A chain link fence and 100-foot no-build zone is proposed along the west border of the property to provide residential and pedestrian safety. Rice said that covenants and homeowner notifications would address many concerns such as the potential effect of over a thousand cats and dogs on the adjacent wildlife refuge.
Sunnyside Orchards LLC representative Alexandra Morton said that there has been so much negativity and distortion about the subdivision proposal that she felt compelled to set things straight and described how the idea of the development came about.
“It was a beautiful piece of ground from the development point of view,” said Morton. She described the gently sloping land overlooking a beautiful view of the river with poor agricultural soil and plenty of water rights, as asking for the kind of magnitude of development being proposed. She said the plan was driven by the desire to provide affordable housing by increasing the density and reducing lot sizes to make them affordable.
She said they were proposing condos in a park-like setting for those who don’t want to maintain lawns and “single family homes with downtown settings like Hamilton and Missoula” with spacious lawns that will support large trees.
Morton spoke directly to Lone Rock residents, saying, “For those of you who have lived in this neighborhood all of your lives or most of your lives or recently moved in seeking a forever rural atmosphere, I absolutely and wholeheartedly sympathize and feel your loss and even anger.” She said that she understood how some of them expected the rural character and serenity of the place to continue.
“All of a sudden here we come with Legacy Ranch,” she said. “Change can be scary, but change is inevitable. It is one thing that keeps the world moving. This community will change. Things will be different with or without Legacy Ranch.”
Morton also took a swipe at detractors of the project, saying, “I am also profoundly sorry for the anxiety and stress that some residents have endured for the last few months due to the misinformation and untruths put forth by those who have been actively agitating against Legacy.” She said that (former County Commissioner) “Mr. Rokosch and some members of Bitterrooters for Planning have gone out of their way to scare enough of the public with their propaganda somewhat lacking in fact and truth.”
She addressed what she considered four pieces of misinformation. The first was the claim that the subdivision was previously denied. She said the application was never denied or withdrawn. She said it was delayed due to a legal challenge from several developers that culminated in a settlement with taxpayers footing the bill and the developments back on track.
Although the subdivision application was never denied, it did languish in the process for several years. One issue that the planning staff at the time identified in the application that made it deficient was the regulation requiring that there be “connectivity” between the new road system internal to the subdivision and existing road systems in the area. The developer tried to gain the necessary easements to bring the connection to Porter Hill Road up to county standards but failed. Landowners along the road were unwilling to sell the required easements. This requirement was eliminated from the subdivision regulations during the county commissioners’ review and revamping of the regulations in June 2012. As a result the application has moved forward without those road improvements, and instead proposes not using them for ingress or egress to the project. Emergency break-away barriers will be installed to block traffic, but allow use in case of emergency.
Morton also objected to the idea that exempt wells might be installed on each lot if the plans for a community water system fail to meet DEQ approval. She said this was not part of the plan and in fact not possible.
Morton also countered the notion that it was like “dropping a town the size of Corvallis in a rural neighborhood in the matter of a few years.” She said the economy, even in the boom years, would not support that rapid a development.
“The absorption rate is just not there,” she said. She stressed the fact that full build-out would not come as a shock, but take place over 20 to 30 years.
She also criticized Bitterrooters for Planning for using a picture of a very large development in Scottsdale, Arizona superimposed on the Legacy property site in its advertising campaign. She called it misleading and said no such development could ever take place here.
“Can you honestly picture homes, hotels, and the high-rise office buildings of Scottsdale, Arizona in our Bitterroot Valley?” she asked.
She said that “the most vicious rhetoric” has been leveled against the professionals working on the subdivision proposal. She defended them, saying they would never risk their licenses and professional careers by doing anything dishonest just for a single project like this.
“No one on our side expected this to be a mutual love fest over what we are proposing,” said Morton. “We are absolutely open to public opinion and questions concerning Legacy but let’s have them based on fact, not speculation and off-the wall irresponsible accusations by a certain group who have done nothing constructive and everything in their power to agitate and upset already concerned residents of this area.”
Although public comment at every meeting has been overwhelmingly in opposition to the proposal, Morton said there were a lot of people in support who couldn’t attend the meetings because they work. This drew a laugh from the crowd at the Lone Rock meeting. Morton presented 60 letters of support that she had gathered to back up her claim. She also presented 500 blank pages that she called “unwritten letters from the prospective new residents of Legacy.”
Morton said that they had done everything in their power to meet Ravalli County regulations and that the planning staff and the Planning Board members had recognized this when they recommended approval. She urged the commissioners to approve the application.
Public comment ran the gamut with questions being raised about every one of the state’s criteria for subdivision review and more. There were people concerned about the effects of all the new traffic on public safety on the highway, as well as the cost to taxpayers of providing the services such as law enforcement and emergency services to the subdivision.
People also expressed concerns about the potential negative effects on the school system. Kathy Clark, a school bus driver, expressed concern about the effects of all the increased traffic on the bus routes. She said more buses would also be required.
Dan Metully, Chairman of the Lone Rock School Board, told the commissioners that the $500 per lot offered as mitigation to the effects on the school district was insufficient. He said the real cost, as the Board figured it, would be closer to $2,300. He also noted that eventually a new building would be required by the number of incoming students and the whole community would pay for that through a levy. He asked the developer to continue a dialogue with the school district about equitable mitigation.
Potential negative effects on wildlife were also a concern. The development is estimated to potentially hold over a thousand cats and dogs. The developer proposes to address the problem with covenants that require pets to be kept indoors or on a leash.
Several members of the public objected to the use of covenants and advisory “notifications,” saying they are not effective or enforceable. It was also noted that the developer could change the covenants at any time at will.
Concerns about effects on neighboring wells and an adjacent orchard operation were also brought out as well as concerns about the effects of all the septic systems on downgrade property including the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. The commissioners have traditionally declined to evaluate the effects of wells and septic drain fields when analyzing subdivisions. They claim to lack the necessary experts and funding to conduct the required analysis and instead rely on the analysis involved in the DNRC and DEQ permitting processes. They basically approve the subdivisions on the condition that they obtain the necessary permits. They are taking the same stance in this case.
Opponents claim that placing the control and maintenance of the water and septic systems in a homeowners association was also unacceptable as they are not professionals and those associations are often dysfunctional.
One incessant refrain in public comment had to do with the potential negative impacts on the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge Manager Tom Reed has expressed concern about effects on wildlife and on groundwater in the refuge. The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks suggested that home construction be concentrated on the higher ground on the east part of the property leaving the lower ground on the west undeveloped to address concerns about wildlife. The developer found this request unacceptable.
Jack Tuholske, attorney for Bitterrooters for Planning, stated that private property rights are the cornerstone of our democracy.
“But there is no constitutional right to subdivide property,” said Tuholske. He said that the constitution protects everyone’s property rights including surrounding landowners that may be affected by the development. He reminded the commissioners that it was their job to protect the property rights and the right to the peaceful enjoyment of their property of neighboring residents.
Bill LaCroix of Bitterrooters for Planning stated that Commissioners Foss and Ron Stoltz should recuse themselves from the decision making process due to conflicts of interest. He noted the contributions that the developer and the developer’s consultant had made to their election campaigns.
Jim Rokosch told the commissioners about a study of the Three Mile Watershed that was currently being conducted by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology that was due to be completed in the next six months. He urged them to use data from that study as well as the DEQ nitrate study that resulted in the determination that the lower part of the Bitterroot River is “impaired.” He also urged them to examine the Traffic Impact Analysis being conducted by MDT before making any decision.
Several people complained about the loss of agricultural land to development. One man stated that he studied the issue in his job as professor of economics and there were hundreds of studies proving that development of agricultural land into subdivisions does not generate enough tax revenue to pay for the cost of services it creates.
Some people expressed support of the proposal. Dave Hurtt said that he would be impacted by the increased traffic, but that there was also a lot of “hysteria” about the negative effects. He said the subdivision would produce much needed jobs.
Three Mile Fire Chief Russ Giese also supported the subdivision and noted that the developer had met with the fire district and agreed to every mitigation asked for by the district. He also supported the subdivision personally, saying it would bring much needed employment to the valley.
Following the last of the public comment on Tuesday morning, Morton told the commissioners that her family always donated to Republican politicians. She noted that the $160 limit on individual donations could not possibly amount to a bribe.
“We supported you because you are the type we support,” Morton told the commissioners.
Following the last public comment Tuesday morning, Commissioner Greg Chilcott apologized for the “insults” that Morton endured from some individuals at the Lone Rock meeting. He also suggested that the commissioners could give the developer’s consultant copies of all the notes taken by each individual commissioner to help in fashioning his rebuttal to the public comment.
Rice said that he took his own notes and had a good list of public concerns but would accept the notes if submitted as part of the process. The deadline for public comment was at the end of the day on Tuesday, June 4. The Commissioners scheduled a meeting for Monday, June 10 to hear the developer’s rebuttal after which they were scheduled to hold their own discussion of the proposal and make a decision on the application that day or possibly the next.