Page One News at a Glance
By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Planning Board gave another thumbs down to the Aspen Springs subdivision proposal at a public hearing held last Wednesday, September 27. The subdivision proposed by Perry Ashby and the WGM group is the largest subdivision ever to be considered in the county. The Planning Board previously recommended denial of the subdivision, but new and relevant information was presented prior to the County Commissioners' meeting on August 22. The law requires that if the new information is deemed relevant and credible then the proposal must be referred back to the Planning Board to be considered at a public hearing. And so it was.
Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin reminded those in attendance at Wednesday's meeting that they should try and confine their remarks to the three pieces of new information that were under consideration and that other remarks were irrelevant and a waste of everyone's time.
The new items of information that had been determined to be relevant included data submitted by the developer concerning recently completed well water tests, an e-mail from Ravalli county Road and Bridge Supervisor David Ohnstad concerning road standards, and some demographic data submitted by the Florence School District.
The Planning Board first considered whether the new information would alter its previous decisions concerning each of the eight variance requests that accompanied the subdivision proposal. The board determined that the new information only changed their determination in one case. That was variance request number #2 and in a 5 to 3 vote the board changed the original recommendation to deny the request to a recommendation of approval with conditions. However, the Board's recommendation for denial of the subdivision proposal as a whole was not affected by the new information. Seven members of the board voted to again make a recommendation of denial to the commissioners. Three members, Lori Schallenberger, Chip Pigman and Bob Kraun, were absent, and two new members, Maura Murray and Tori Nobles, abstained from voting.
The County Commissioners will consider the proposal again and make a final determination at a meeting scheduled for Monday, October 16, at 6 p.m. at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds in the First Interstate Center.
By Michael Howell
Stevensville Police Chief James Marble said on Monday that he was investigating a very serious case of vandalism at the Creamery Park in downtown Stevensville. Marble said that vandalism problems in town were on the increase but that the latest case involves some potentially serious charges if the perpetrators are apprehended. In addition to spray painting on the walls of adjacent buildings, the perpetrators also lit a fire near the Creamery Churn, as well as destroying a picnic bench. Marble said that the setting of a fire near the building could lead to arson charges.
He was upbeat about the chances of solving the crime, however.
"Whoever did it left behind some evidentiary items that we are very appreciative of," said Marble. "We have an excellent set of finger prints."
In the meantime, neighboring business owner Brian Potton has offered a reward of $50 to every individual that comes forward with information leading to the arrest of the criminals. Potton said that he is fed up with the vandalism downtown.
"That's why I removed the planter from in front of my business," he said. "It was always being trashed by vandals."
Marble said that this type of crime can have an enormous impact on a community.
"We are making every effort to put an end to it," he said.
He encouraged citizens and shop owners to contact his office if they see any suspicious activity.
By Michael Howell
Troubled by reports that the Stevensville Police Department was lacking funds for fuel and was understaffed, a small group of concerned citizens approached the Town Council recently to propose funding the department with private donations. One of the participants, dismayed at what she perceived as the town's lack of receptivity to the idea at the public hearing on the town's budget on September 18, complained to the Bitterroot Star. According to more than one person in attendance, Town Clerk Nancy Lowell, who they perceived as most resistant to the idea, "stormed out of the meeting."
The Town did in fact adopt a general fund budget at that meeting but it was "minus the approximate $25,000 that was short in the budget for the hiring of a third police officer," according to unofficial minutes of the meeting. Those minutes of the meeting, however, made no mention of any donation proposal nor did they contain any reference to any discussion of the problems involved in accepting private donations. Upon examination at Town Hall, tape recordings of the meeting were unintelligible. Clerk Lowell did offer her version of events.
Lowell affirmed that the offer and discussion took place. She said that the owner of ACE Hardware, Phil Henderson, stated that he was willing to donate up to $8,000, in a $1 match for every $2 raised in donations from other sources. She also admitted to walking off and leaving the meeting at one point in the discussion.
"I walked off," said Lowell. "I've never done that before in all the years I've worked here. I'm not proud of it. But I'm tired." She said that many people don't appreciate how overworked the clerk's office is dealing with the town's growth.
Lowell said that she was extremely frustrated at the time with the apparent lack of understanding on the part of those making the offer with the complexities involved in dealing with such donations, and the inability of the town to budget for salaries, when the funds are not necessarily going to be available.
"We would be happy to have donations," she said, "but we can't set a budget with salaries based simply on the promise that someone will give us the money some day. It would be different if they had come with some money in hand." She admitted that she may not have expressed the problems that clearly at the time.
Henderson said that he did make the offer but that, at this point, he considered the proposal dead.
"I can see their side of it too," said Henderson. But from the discussion, he said, it seems that the Town would rather have another clerk in the office than another policeman on the streets. "It's a question of priorities and we live in a democracy," he said. "They voted and set the town's priorities. That's how the process works."
The group of concerned citizens is not ready to give up and met last Thursday to consider other avenues to achieving their own priorities, according to Mike Ensler. He said at Thursday's meeting the group decided to pursue an idea put forth by Terri Welch. Welch's idea was to form a non-profit foundation that could raise money and purchase a debit card to be used by the police department strictly for gasoline purchases. Ensler said that they were working with Police Chief Marble to establish the amount of money required to meet the department's fuel needs on a monthly basis. If successful the donation program might free up dollars from the fuel budget that could go toward salaries for a part-time officer.
By Michael Howell
"Growth is an issue in every school district in the valley, and probably in Western Montana," Jim Rokosch told Stevensville School Board members at their meeting on September 12. Rokosch told the board that recent legislation presents a vehicle for school districts to recoup the costs of new development by enacting impact fees for new housing developments within the district. The law requires, however, that a study be done to establish reasonable fees before they can be enacted. He urged the board to consider conducting such a study for the Lone Rock and Stevensville districts.
Rokosch pointed to the recent study done by the Florence School District that established a $10,418 per housing unit fee for new development. He said that in the past Florence was asking developers to make voluntary contributions to the district of $500 per unit, but then upped that to a $5,400 request.
"They never received anything close to that," said Rokosh, "until after conducting the study that estimated the real costs to be $10,418."
Since then, he said, they have received a recent offer from a developer to pay $5,000 per unit. He also cited a survey done by the Florence District in the face of several bond failures in the district. That survey, done in 2003, he said, concluded that only 35 percent of the voters would approve a bond request of $9 million. But it showed that 61 percent would approve a $9 million bond if they believed that bond payments were structured in such a way that new residents in the district would participate in those payments.
Rokosch called all of this "concrete and quantitative evidence of the value and need for enacting impact fees in the Lone Rock and Stevensville districts and he urged the Board to conduct the necessary study. The Florence study cost $35,000 to $40,000, he said.
In other business, the Board received an appraisal on the four acres of property currently being leased to the Stevensville Community Center Complex, Inc. (SCCC). The SCCC is considering outright purchase of the property. Scott Spear submitted an appraisal report valuing the property at $279,000. The SCCC has already purchased land adjoining the school property for development of the community center.
The Board received a letter from the Ravalli County Planning Department seeking comment on a 4-lot subdivision proposed in the district at the intersection of North and Middle Burnt Fork Roads and a 15-lot subdivision proposed on Airport Road.
In the public comment portion of the meeting board member Bill Goslin noted that the board had passed a new harassment policy and approved changes to the Community Relations policy to allow the public to make suggestions instead of just complaints. He also clarified the intentions of the changes made in the school's grievance policy. He stated that the intent was to give only 30 days from the time of any incident to the filing of a grievance. Then the building principal would have another 30 days to file a written response to the grievance to be considered by the board.
The board discussed the record of a roadway easement that was granted in May of 2003 to the developer of Creekside Meadows, an adjoining residential subdivision. Board member Ed Cummings raised the question as to whether the Superintendent, who signed the easement on behalf of the school, had the legal authority to do so. Cummings asked if there was any record of board approval of the easement. The matter will be placed on the agenda of the next board meeting.
Superintendent Dennis Kimzey told the board that enrollment was up 20 students over last year for a current total of 1,060 students, 448 elementary school students, 143 junior high and 469 high school students.
The board approved the acceptance of 13 new out-of-district students. The Elementary School has caps set on accepting out-of-district students and currently the third grade is not accepting any out-of-district students. The Junior High and High School do not have any set cap.
Board member Kirk Thompson told the board that the Building Committee had settled on a preliminary preferred building plan calling for a new permanent structure. He said that they were ready for public input and input from the board.
"We did not make any decisions," said Thompson. "It's just a recommendation for how to proceed with the process." A meeting was set for Tuesday, September 26 to consider building options.
"It will not be a one meeting process, in my mind," said Board Chairman Jim Cloud.
A discussion was held about the possibility or appropriateness of having a board member serve on the school's discipline committee. The school has a policy that after eight unexcused absences a student may not receive credit for a class. The discipline committee has the authority to allow the student to receive credit if the student signs a "contract" concerning future attendance and behavior. Out of 460 high school students, about 100 were under contract last year. Out of those, 30 were summoned before the committee and two "came close to denial of credit." The committee, in place for two years, has never denied a student credit.
The board reviewed the seven leases currently held for school property. Only two were considered questionable and the board will look into the "going rates" for agricultural leases to see if the current agricultural related leases are reasonable. One involves leasing 5 acres for $30 per month and the other 40 acres for $800 per year. The school also leases property to the Bitterroot Cooperative, Pantry Partners, the Stevensville Community Center Complex and the Baseball Complex.
Kindergarten registration policy was discussed. Chairman Cloud said that he had received some complaints about people only being notified of their child's schedule two weeks before school. Elementary principal Jackie Mavencamp said that she was unaware of any complaints and that they should properly be submitted to her first. She said people could even call her at home if they had questions.
The board agreed to hire an attorney for guidance about the proper process for handling Title IX complaints.
The board agreed to Kathy Rausch's request to rescind her leave of absence request, accepted resignations from Cyndi Champion and Karen O'Hara, hired Beau Hart as Junior High Social Studies instructor, and hired Janet Schott to replace Champion as Elementary School Secretary.
By Michael Howell
The Bitter Root Irrigation District unanimously decided to withdraw a grant application seeking funds to place a siphon across Dry Gulch Creek.
"The Board feels that at some point even a quality project may no longer be cost effective to the district," it stated in a letter dated September 18. The Board claims to remain committed to water conservation and will continue its efforts to operate and maintain the canal in a safe and efficient manner following the district's standard operating procedures.
It goes on to state that "the Board will continue to consider any and all future projects that will ensure the integrity of the canal."
Opponents of the project have expressed concern that the district may pursue the siphon project or some similar project that might detrimentally affect the flows in Dry Gulch Creek without the grant and the required public participation that a grant requires.
By Michael Howell
Virginia Bolen, a 76-year-old Hamilton woman, won a jury verdict against Ravalli County for malicious prosecution. The case revolved around a lost ladies diamond watch that Bolen discovered in the parking lot of the local animal shelter in 1997. Bolen worked in the animal shelter at the time.
After finding the watch, valued at around $2,000, Bolen put a notice up at the shelter, advertised in the paper and notified the sheriff's office in an attempt to find the owner of the watch. She heard nothing until a sheriff's deputy appeared in 2000 demanding that the watch be turned over for return to its original owner. But the deputy would not identify the owner. As a result, Bolen refused to turn the watch over. She also requested proof that no insurance claim had already been filed and paid to the owner for the lost watch. If it had, she reasoned, the insurance company would own the watch. Bolen was unable to get that information herself, but the County, which can get the information, did not make the inquiry.
Instead, felony criminal theft charges were made against Bolen in 2001. Those charges were eventually dropped or withdrawn.
Bolen said that she brought the current lawsuit to "clear her name, restore her reputation and to prevent others from having to endure what she experienced."
On Friday, September 22, a jury determined that Ravalli County through former Sheriff Perry Johnson had maliciously prosecuted Bolen. The jury also determined that Ravalli County and former Deputy County Attorney Michael Reardon (now Hamilton City Judge) defamed Bolen when he reported to the press that "she's a crabby old lady with a false sense of pride" when Bolen surrendered herself and spent a day in jail rather than relinquish the watch without proof that the County knew the identity of the true owner of the watch.
Judge James Haynes also ruled in Bolen's favor that another statement to the press by Reardon, "We still think she committed the theft," a statement made after charges had been dismissed, was defamatory, per se.
Ravalli County provided evidence for the first time at this trial that the watch had not been insured. As a result, Bolen said, she is currently making arrangements to return the watch to its true owner.
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