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Stevi council to consider public vote on river deal

By Michael Howell

Last week an informal (i.e. not publicly noticed) gathering of concerned parties was held at the Stevi Café to discuss the issue of developing a fishing/river access site for Stevensville. The meeting was organized by Greg Lanoue, an owner of the Stevi Café and Stevi Stop & Go. Lanoue expressed concern about the closure of the present boat launch at the bridge and organized the meeting in the hopes of moving towards some resolution.

 

“That fishing access site is an economic driver for our town,” said Lanoue. “Fish, Wildlife and Parks is interested in investing in our community. This is a win for everybody,” he said. He said he wished the Town Council could just vote to make it happen.

 

Also in attendance was FWP FAS regional manager Rory Zarling, Senator Fred Thomas, who moderated the meeting, Stevensville Mayor Jim Crews, and several members of the public including town residents who use the park and others, including an outfitter from Hamilton.

 

At the meeting, Mayor Crews said he plans to ask the Town Council at its next meeting to consider and decide whether or not they want to place the issue of a land swap at River Park on the next election ballot. The land swap proposal was presented by local landowner Roy Capp to trade 3.5 acres of his property adjacent to the town’s River Park and another 1.29 acre piece along the roadside in town for 8.5 acres of the town’s parkland at the north end of the park. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks would then build and maintain a fishing access site at the bridge including parking and a restroom facility and other amenities. FWP officials have indicated that they could use up to $250,000 if they move quickly enough on the proposition while the funding lasts.

 

One thing that’s bound to slow up the process at this point is the need to place the land swap proposal on the ballot for a vote by the citizens of the town. Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg has told the Town that she did not have enough time to initiate a special election so the vote would have to be placed on the November ballot. Mayor Crews said that he had talked with the town’s attorney a few days ago and that he believed it was still a question as to whether the land swap would have to go to a public vote. He said since the deed does not show the land as a park or mention the public trust that it is possible that the council could vote on the issue and not put it to a public vote. The Mayor did call the Bitterroot Star the day after the meeting, however, and said when he called the attorney again it was pointed out that the resolution dedicating the land as a park also mentions explicitly that it is being placed in the public trust. He said based on the resolution itself the issue would have to be placed on the ballot.

 

The land swap has been controversial since it was first proposed. Capp, via State Senator Fred Thomas, who has been serving as a facilitator of the deal between the three parties, suggested right away that it was a take it or leave it deal and that if the deal wasn’t taken Capp would consider closing access to the current boat launch area on his property. Even the issue of whether or not the Park Board should play a role was vigorously disputed. The Mayor proposed forming a special committee but the matter was placed in the hands of the Park Board.

 

At a subsequent Park Board meeting, several members of the public criticized the trade proposal for being unequal and unfair. Three or four alternatives were presented and discussed, including outright purchase of the land from the Capps, to an acre for acre even trade, and other options. But when Rory Zarling of FWP and Park Board members took the set of alternatives to Capp, he rejected all other options. The town’s attorney had submitted a written opinion that the Council itself could make a decision about the land swap unless the land had been dedicated to some specific purpose, “like a public park,” in which case any disposition of the property would have to go to a public vote. The Park Board’s final decision was to recommend that the Town Council consider whether it would place the issue on the ballot or not. They recommended placing it on the ballot.

 

The council accepted the Park Board’s recommendation but took no action on it. The Mayor wrote FWP and the Capps, asking for an official proposal in writing. But with no action taken by the town, Capp followed through on his threat to close the boat launch on June 15 by placing a set of concrete barriers.

 

No one representing the Capps was present at last week’s meeting at the café.

 

Once again other options were discussed and FWP agreed to look further into the potential of developing a boat launching site on the west side of the river across from the current site.

 

Mayor Crews noted that he had been given authority by the council to pursue putting a fishing access site on the town’s property. He said permits would be required and money would need to be budgeted and it would take three to six months to get approval of all that.

 

Zarling made a few points. First of all he clarified that he was not saying that developing a site on the west side would work. He said they were willing to look into it but it would take a lot of work and expense and might turn out to not be feasible. It would also not get done quickly but would take one to two years to get all the permissions and permits.

 

He also pointed out that in terms of river frontage, the trade represents a wash for each party who end up with the same amount.

 

Zarling stated that as far as boat launching sites go, the one that has historically been used is definitely workable, while the other sites are not for sure.

 

He also noted that it was his belief that the town could allow boaters to drive across town property and launch a boat without having to get a permit to build a road.

 

Thomas praised the values of the original proposition that he called “the only one on the table” right now. But he asked if the people present who wanted to preserve the park land at the north would be willing to consider shrinking the 8.5 acres to a smaller number, five, four and a half, or four acres, if Capp would agree. He got no clear answer to his question. He asked if an acre for acre trade would be acceptable but got no answer to that either. But he did indicate that he would inquire with Capp about the possibility of a different amount of acreage in the deal. He said it was a good idea to keep the conversation going.

 

The status of the dump located within the parkland was also discussed as a potential solution to the problems if it was removed.

 

Mayor Crews said that the issue of placing the land swap on the ballot was on the agenda for the July 10 council meeting at the signed request of a council member. He also noted that he had put together a list of agenda items for the Park Board to consider at its July 5 meeting:
• a recommendation to the Town Council to create a temporary Fishing/River Access Site at the River Park.
• a recommendation to the Town Council regarding rules for the use of a temporary Fishing/River Access Site at the River Park.
• a recommendation to the Town Council regarding rules for the use of the River Park as a swimming access point and swimming from the River Park property.
• a recommendation to the Town Council regarding the creation of a plan for clean up and removal of the dump site.
• a recommendation to the Town Council regarding defining the River Park property boundary. (Does the River Park include the dump site? What is the property boundary or perimeter of the River Park? Should it be reduced, redefined?)
• a determination of the Feasibility/Usability of a temporary River/Fishing Access Site.

One Response to Stevi council to consider public vote on river deal
  1. Jim Sayre
    July 16, 2017 | 3:12 pm

    This is the same rancher whose signs discourage the public from visiting Ft. Owen State Park. I read an article recently about how the State was considering abandoning or reducing support of the park. I think Stevensville should INCREASE awareness of the little park and promote tourism to it. Read this article from Trip Advisor from someone trying to visit the park. The signs by the ranch scare visitors off. Maybe tourists should be bussed in by volunteers. Mr. Capp might then become a little more tolerant of fishermen.

    CONFUSING Access to this Park!
    When we pulled off US 93 at the Stevensville /Fort Owen road, we saw a small “Fort Owen State Park” sign (about a mile after turning off US 93) pointing to the north… but it pointed to a fenced pasture, with no road. About another quarter of a mile we saw the entrance to the Fort Owen Ranch / Dangl’n Rope Angus property. Affixed to the ranch entrance were “PRIVATE PROPERTY” and “NO TRESPASSING” signs. Huh? We were confused. After driving past the ranch entrance, our smart phone led us to a ranch pasture a mile or so away. We happened upon a nice Montanan out for a run, and she explained we are to drive onto the ranch to see the state park. We did so. The park is an acre site fenced inside of the ranch property. Those “PRIVATE PROPERTY” signs again appear when you reach the state park site, and it is a bit confusing about where to park. AND… after having seen a few other sites in the state (ghost towns, re-constructed towns), this park was very disappointing stop on our journey.

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