By Michael Howell
Following a series of public meetings where public comment concerning the proposed Legacy Ranch subdivision was heard, developer’s consultant Jason Rice of Territorial Landworks presented the County Commissioners with his rebuttal last Monday, June 10.
Addressing the state criteria concerning effects on agriculture, Rice said, “This land will produce, I’m not denying that,” but he also stated that a lot of the soils on the property were “limited.” He also said that no surface water would be leaving the property and flowing toward the Bitterroot River.
As for traffic impacts, Rice said that the Montana Department of Transportation was asking them to update the traffic analysis. He said that of the 9,271 trips per day estimated to be produced by the development, a lot of those trips would be internal to the subdivision and not affect traffic on the Eastside Highway. He said when cars left the subdivision they would go in both directions.
To address the effects on public safety, he said, the developer had offered $150 per lot in mitigation fees. He said the water supply for the Fire District’s needs was more than sufficient and other mitigations had been agreed to with the Fire District to accommodate emergency access. The Fire District has gone on record in support of the subdivision.
Rice agreed that there was a delay in taxes when new students entered the school system, but said there is as yet no model for figuring those impacts. He said that he “worked it backwards” from the number of potential students per household and came up with a mitigation fee of $400 per unit to Lone Rock and $200 per unit to Stevensville schools.
Rice disagreed with claims about studies that prove that the cost of services demanded is not met by the taxes paid in new developments. He said, in terms of services required, the subdivision pays for itself.
As to the concerns about water quality and quantity, Rice said there is enough water. He said that by law the developer must only demonstrate the “feasibility” of the water system for subdivision review. He said that the DEQ permitting process will determine if the system is actually possible and either permit it, or not, based on its analysis. He said the DEQ would not begin its permitting analysis until a preliminary plat is approved by the county. That is why the county approves the plat “on the condition that the permit is granted.” He said objections can be made by the public in that process. He also noted that the developer was proposing to create a public water and sewer district with a hired administrator and operator to maintain those systems and not just a homeowners association as some people feared. He discounted fears expressed by some that if the water system was not approved the developer would simply put in individual wells for each home which are exempt from review, saying to the commissioners, “You can put a condition on it that we can’t change it.”
Rice also suggested that the commissioners could put a condition of approval on the plat that no covenants made for the subdivision to mitigate impacts can be changed without government review.
Rice said there would be some impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat, but that the wildlife “would adapt.” He said migration corridors exist in the open space left in the subdivision. He said there would be covenants to prevent dogs and cats from becoming a problem.
The Commissioners then began their deliberations of the subdivision with a consideration of whether the application met the preliminary requirements to be considered complete and sufficient for review.
As part of this process they consider whether any information presented by the public for consideration was new information or information that the public had not had the opportunity to comment upon. Then they must also determine if the information is credible and whether it is relevant. If such information is found to be credible and relevant, a new public hearing would have to be held to consider it and allow for public comment.
Some information submitted by Jim Rokosch on nitrate levels in a test hole on the Wildlife Refuge and comments on wildlife migration routes in the area submitted by Skip Kowalski led to a great deal of discussion. The main question was whether the material was “new” or not, or whether the public had the chance to comment on it.
After some discussion the commissioners reached consensus that the material was not new information. The issue was raised again the following day by Commissioner Suzy Foss. She suggested they reconsider the question of whether the nitrate test data submitted by Rokosch was new or not.
Montana Association of Counties (MACo) attorney Allen McCormick advised the commissioners that there was no guidance in the law about how to make that determination.
He told them if they were struggling with the issue as they appeared to be, they could be conservative and set a public hearing to be sure they meet the law.
The Commissioners did not take that option. After further discussion a poll was taken and all commissioners were in agreement that the information was not new and no further public hearing was required.
Commissioner Ron Stoltz moved to determine that the subdivision had met all the legal requirements. The motion was seconded, but MACo attorney McCormick short-circuited the vote. He reminded the commission that they had only made the determination by consensus that the prerequisites for a complete and sufficient application had been met. He said no determination had been made yet that the subdivision met the requirements of the law. He said the commission would have to review the state’s seven criteria before determining that. He said even then it would not be a determination they could make because, if it is approved, it will be on the condition that it meets certain laws.
“You don’t know that it has met the law until DEQ approves it,” said McCormick.
Rice told the commissioners that based on how things were going, his client would consider extending the deadline for making a decision by three weeks to give the commissioners a little more time. The commissioners accepted the extension and due to scheduled vacations continued the meeting until Thursday, June 27 at 1 p.m. They also set aside all day Friday, June 28.