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Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Page One News at a Glance

Five years of data on Bitterroot River

Bitterroot Building Association charged with illegal political practices

'Big Box' Ordinance suspended until election

Five years of data on Bitterroot River

By Michael Howell

Doug Nation and Nat Sturgis gave each other the high five on the highway bridge over the Bitterroot River on the outskirts of Missoula last week. It was the last stop in the day marking five years of data collection at a set of appointed water sampling sites on the Bitterroot River from Darby to Missoula. Nation has only missed three rounds of monthly sampling in those five years. He was especially exuberant last Friday because five years of data collection was a goal that he set in his own mind years ago when the water sampling first started.

"At this point the data has some value," said Nation. Enough value, he hopes, that the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), will continue funding the water sampling program for years to come, building upon the current database.

The water sampling tests are designed to gauge the nutrient content of the river water. Nutrients can have dramatic effects on a stream, especially on a cold water mountain stream or river. It can lead to growth of oxygen depleting algae and to higher water temperatures, both of which can be harmful to the native fishery.

Nation said that once the idea of establishing some baseline data was conceived, it took about one and a half years to find the funding for the program. He said that Will McDowell of the Tri-State Water Quality Council was instrumental in finding and obtaining the necessary funds.

The non-profit Tri-State Water Quality Council, covering Washington, Idaho and Montana, is a successful partnership of diverse community interests ­ including citizens, business, industry, tribes, government, and environmental groups ­ working together to improve and protect water quality throughout the 26,000 square mile Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed. The watershed includes the Clark Fork River in western Montana, Pend Oreille Lake in northern Idaho, and the Pend Oreille River in eastern Washington.

Working collaboratively to seek community-based solutions through consensus, science, and education, the Council works to educate and engage communities and residents in the watershed to take an active role in protecting water quality and reducing pollution.

Once the funding was finally procured through DEQ, the Tri-State Water Quality Council, which was already obtaining nutrient data on the Clark Fork, was now able to gather data on two of its major tributaries, the Blackfoot and Bitterroot Rivers. In September of 2001, in consultation with DEQ, the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the University of Montana, a sampling project was outlined and the Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited volunteered to do the grunt work of collecting the raw data. Enter Nation, Sturgis, Howard and Patty Eldridge, Roxa French and others, who were able to see five years of data collection through.

Stopping at almost every bridge over the Bitterroot River from Darby to Missoula, two water samples are taken at every site each month, at precisely marked spots on the bridges. One sample is tested for nitrates, nitrites, and phosphorous, the most common forms of nutrient contributed to water systems by such things as septics, and agricultural and suburban use of fertilizers. The second, larger sample is examined to determine the amount of suspended solids in the water.

Such data, collected over the long term, will be invaluable in maintaining the health of the Bitterroot Valley watershed and the greater Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed to which to which the Bitterroot is a major contributor.

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Bitterroot Building Association charged with illegal political practices

By Michael Howell

Bitterrooters for Planning announced at a press conference on Friday that it had filed two complaints with the Commissioner of Political Practices against Residents for Responsible Land Use (RRLU) and the Bitterroot Building Association (BBA). RRLU is accused of failing to disclose the economic interest of its contributors in its political ads against the interim zoning initiative, and BBA is accused of illegally campaigning against the initiative on its web site.

Phil Taylor authored and BFP helped place on the upcoming November ballot by petition an interim zoning initiative that would temporarily limit subdivision approval to no more than one house per two acres for a year while the County Commissioners develop comprehensive zoning regulations. The Bitterroot Building Association and the Ravalli County Board of Realtors sought, unsuccessfully, to get a court injunction to block the interim zoning initiative from appearing on the ballot.

Since then, RRLU has mounted a campaign against the initiative claiming that its supporters and contributors "include residents and homeowners across the county." But BFP Action Committee members claim that when they received contributor records recently from the group, they learned that the sole contributor to the campaign was the BBA.

Taylor called it a "clear violation of the Montana campaign and finance laws."

"The law requires them to clearly identify the economic or other special other interest of a majority of their contributors," said Taylor. "In this case, their only contributor is the Bitterroot Building Association. Not a single resident contributed to their campaign."

The donations made by the BBA to the RRLU were, according to Taylor, about $37,000 at the time of disclosure about a week ago.

"It is an out and out fraud on the voters to say this campaign is being financed by residents," said Taylor. "But the real question is where did the money come from?"

Taylor said he does not believe that the association has the kind of membership money to sponsor a $37,000 political campaign.

The BFP Action Committee, of which Taylor is the treasurer, has also filed a specific complaint against the BBA for illegally campaigning against the initiative on its web site without the disclaimers required by law. Taylor claims that BBA is registered as an "incidental committee" and, as such, may donate to political campaigns. But since it is not registered as a "political action committee’" the publication of election material on its web site without the proper disclosure is illegal.

According to Marilyn Owns Medicine, BFP Action Committee president, this opposition campaign is large by Ravalli County standards and could void the election results if it is determined that the activity is illegal and affected the outcome of the election.

Jason Rice, chairperson of RRLU, called the issue "ridiculous." He denied that the allegations were true and said that his group and the BBA would probably release a response to the charges soon, but he could not say what that response would be exactly. He said that the actions of BFP members towards RRLU treasurer Ramona Wagner at her home amounted to harassment.

"They spend a lot of time harassing," said Rice. "I could show you some e-mail chains from these people that really bother me. It's a form of harassment."

Rice said that he thought the allegations would be cleared up soon and people could return to the real issue, the initiative itself.

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'Big Box' Ordinance suspended until election

By Michael Howell

The so called Big Box Ordinance, passed by the County Commissioners last August, that would limit the size of large retail stores in the valley to 60,000 square feet or less, is suspended, according to District Court Judge James Haynes. Haynes ruled that by gathering enough signatures to place the ordinance on the November ballot, state law requires that the ordinance be automatically suspended pending the outcome of the election.

The County sued Citizens for Economic Opportunity and Dallas Erickson, who gathered the signatures to place the referendum on the ballot, asking the court to determine whether or not the interim zoning measure ­ Resolution 1844 ­ would be in force or would be suspended until the election. The County and Bitterroot Good Neighbors Coalition, which joined the suit as intervenors, both argued that the Resolution should remain in effect until the election.

Enactment of the emergency interim zoning measure was to some degree sparked by Wal-Mart's submission of a building permit from the state for a 153,430 square foot Supercenter near Hamilton. The Commissioners, at a meeting attended by more than a thousand people, passed the measure limiting the size of retail stores on April 12, 2006. Resolution 1844 also established design standards for retail buildings between 25,000 and 60,000 square feet and requires a permit from the County before construction, expansion or alteration can begin on such an establishment. The Resolution became immediately effective.

But in June, Erickson, with about $40,000 in funds donated by Wal-Mart, ran a successful petition campaign to place Resolution 1844 on the ballot.

Then, in August, Wal-Mart withdrew its original application for a building permit with the state and submitted another application for a project of the same design. The County subsequently filed suit in September to determine if the resolution was effective pending election.

Haynes considered Wal-Mart's involvement in the petition process "irrelevant" for legal purposes. He decided that the law does allow a minority of qualified voters to suspend any legislative act until a vote could be taken via the referendum power. He decided that this applies whether the legislative act is called an ordinance or a resolution.

"This is great news for all of us who worked so hard to defend our economic rights, and for consumers and free market advocates throughout the region," stated Erickson. He criticized the county for filing what he considers a "frivolous lawsuit that ignored the clear intent of the law."

"Our hope is that it ends here, that after the voters decide next Tuesday to repeal the Resolution our Commissioners will turn their attention to matters that encourage economic opportunity and consumer choice," said Erickson.

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