Volume XIX, Number 26
Page One News
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
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Page One News at a Glance
By Michael Howell
Ravalli County Commissioners, after a series of public meetings, have adopted a new resolution governing public participation in commission decisions concerning matters of significant public interest, including the often controversial subdivision review process.
The new resolution comes in response to a new state law, HB 94, guaranteeing the public the chance to comment upon matters not placed upon the official agenda, as well as the Commissioners' recent refusal to allow public comment at their subdivision review hearings.
The County's previous resolution, Resolution 916, which guaranteed the public's right to participate in any decision of significant public interest, did not specifically allow for public comment about matters that were not on the Commissioners' official agenda. It also was in apparent conflict with the Commissioners' recent policy of not allowing public comment at their sub-division hearings.
Following a recent District Court ruling against their approval of the Hatchery Bend Subdivision, which involved considering data that was not presented at the initial hearing before the Ravalli County Planning Board, the Commissioners' legal council recommended that no public comment be allowed at the subsequent Commissioners' hearing.
In response to being excluded from commenting at these hearings, some members of the public claimed that the Commissioners were now in conflict with Resolution 916 which guaranteed the public's right to participate. The Commissioners then decided to reconsider Resolution 916.
In subsequent public meetings over the matter it was suggested that the judge's order was not meant to preclude public comment per se, but only the introduction of new data. Former Assistant Attorney General Curtis Cook as well as Missoula Attorney Jack Tuholske argued that the Commissioners were acting as a quasi-judicial body in the case of subdivision decisions and in relation to the Planning Board's decisions were in a similar position as the State Supreme Court in relation to the lower District Court decisions. In that case the Supreme Court could not consider new "evidence" but could consider new "arguments" or briefs concerning the existing evidence and its relation to the law and the regulations. In this case, the Commissioners could not consider new "data" or evidence, but could consider new public "comments" or arguments concerning the data and the law and how to interpret them.
As a result County Attorney George Corn presented the Commissioners with a set of options aimed at resolving the issue. And, in the end, Corn expressed agreement with the interpretation offered by Cook and Tuholske and recommended the option that allowed public comment at their subdivision hearings.
Corn explained to the Commissioners that in this option it would be up to them to decide if what was being presented by any member of the public constituted new data or was simply an interpretation of data already presented to the Planning Board.
"We're just going to have to feel our way into that process," said Corn. "It may be a bumpy road."
Commissioner Greg Chilcott expressed concern that by allowing public comment someone intent upon subverting the subdivision review process might take the opportunity to present new data.
Corn said that in such a case the Commissioners could disregard the new data or they could send the matter back to the Planning Board if they felt it was significant.
"That's the rocky road we're on," said Corn. "But to not allow it (public comment) is where we get into trouble with public participation law... I don't see any other option."
"Who finally decides if it is new data or not?" asked Commissioner Betty Lund.
"You will have to make the determination, Betty, whether it goes back or not and call it the best you see it," said Corn. He said that the Commissioners may rely on the Planning staff to help them make that determination.
"I don't think anyone at this table wants to make a decision without as much public comment as they can get," said Commissioner Alan Thompson. "Decisions made in a vacuum are poor decisions, and not just about subdivisions." Thompson expressed strong agreement with the option allowing public comment.
The Commissioners eventually voted unanimously for the option allowing public comment after working out details which included offering a chance for public comment on issues not included in the agenda and set a regular time for making decisions on Tuesday and Thursday. The new Resolution Number 1372 will take effect on February 2, 2004. Copies of the new resolution are available at the Commissioners' office in the Administrative Building on 4th Street.
By Michael Howell
In a public hearing that stretched over three days and three different communities, Bitterroot Valley residents got the chance to comment upon proposed amendments to the County's current Growth Policy.
The Growth Policy was adopted in December of 2002. Since then, it has been the object of much discussion and many, many meetings. As a result of those meetings and discussion, the Ravalli County Planning Board and the All Valley Focus Group have presented the Commissioners with a set of proposed amendments meant to fine tune the document in preparation for a sunset vote on the policy next November.
According to Planning Director Patrick O'Herren, last week's meetings, in Stevensville, Darby and Hamilton, were "three of the most well conducted meetings on the Growth Policy since I've been here."
All three County Commissioners attended the meetings, seeking public comment upon the proposed amendments. In the next couple of weeks they will review the Growth Policy, the proposed amendments and the public comment about them and hopefully come up with the final version which will go before the voters in the next general election in November. The goal, according to County Commission Chairperson Betty Lund, is to get a final version that can pass the at the polls.
According to O'Herren, 34 people attended the meeting in Stevensville and 16 of them spoke, all in favor of the Growth Policy with some endorsing the proposed amendments. He said that 82 attended the Hamilton meeting, 37 spoke and the comments were more contentious with the speakers about evenly divided with some in support of the Growth Policy as it stands, others in support with modifications and others wanting no Growth Policy at all. He said that in Darby, out of 33 people in attendance and 26 of them speaking, most comments were positive with some wanting modifications and a "distinct minority" wanting no Growth Policy at all.
The amendments under consideration were submitted to the Commissioners on December 2 by the Planning Board and the All Valley Focus Group after extensive public hearings.
"We all know how important this Growth Policy is to Ravalli County," said Lund, "and we do need to make sure that it gets past the people at the polls." Lund said that the amendments proposed by the Planning Board and All Valley Focus Group make it a better policy, but it still needs study. She hopes that in a few weeks the Commissioners can finalize a document that can be approved by the voters.
"I think basically everyone believes that the All Valley Focus Group and the Planning Board did a good job," said Lund.
Ravalli County State Senator Rick Laible was one of those who spoke in opposition to the current Growth Policy and proposed amendments at the Hamilton meeting. He proposed some changes of his own. He believes that the 116-page document needs to be shortened. He thinks this can be done by reducing the redundant parts of the document that simply repeat federal and state regulation already in place, especially those parts protecting water and air quality. He also believes that the "action items" that were changed to "suggestions" in the proposed amendments should just be eliminated because they will invite litigation over inclusion of regulations in the document which is supposed to be non-regulatory in nature. He also advocates dropping the goals that are localized to each school district, keeping only the county-wide goals contained in the document. He thinks the All Valley Focus Group should be dissolved once the document is finalized and also suggests that it include support of the President's Healthy Forest Initiative. He also believes that the County Attorney's office needs to review the final document for legal sufficiency following the adoption of any changes.
Speaking for Bitterrooters for Planning, Stewart Brandborg praised the current Growth Policy and spoke favorably of the amendments proposed by the Planning Board and the All Valley Focus Group.
"Our many friends spoke clearly with hard facts," said Brandborg. "They brought out the years and thousands of volunteer hours spent on the consensus building process." He was critical of the "stalling tactics" of Growth Policy critics and especially critical of Senator Laible's proposed changes.
"He has positioned himself to amend the policy to near death," said Brandborg. He said that Laible and his allies are out to gut the Growth Policy and urged the public to counter the critics by contacting their commissioners and expressing their support. He said that the document is not a regulatory document but sets some fair goals for protecting the valley's environment while at the same time protecting property values from indiscriminate development.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said in a telephone interview, "I think we have some deliberations to do. He echoed Laible's concerns about the clean air and clean water goals in the policy, calling them redundant and emphasizing that they are already protected under the state constitution, laws and federal regulations. He also advocated eliminating the "suggestions" contained in the document because they represent a liability in that they may be misinterpreted as regulatory in nature and draw unneeded litigation. He also advocates removing the local community goals and retaining only the county-wide goals in the document. The document currently contains county-wide goals and local goals tailored to the specific communities in each school district.
"I think the document really needs to be shortened," said Chilcott. "The bottom line is I want a document that an average citizen can pick up and understand before going to the ballot box. 120 pages is more than most people will read."
Chilcott said that he wants a growth policy but that he does not believe that the present version with the current amendments will survive a vote.
Commissioner Alan Thompson said that the public process over the Growth Policy has been extended several times and that many of the pros and cons heard at the latest series of meetings have been heard before.
"I think that the amendments offered by the Planning Board and the All Valley Focus Group have added substance," said Thompson. "The language was clarified. I think they are appropriate." He said that he aims to study the entire policy again "line by line" and may come up with proposed changes of his own and the other Commissioners may too. He said that in a few weeks the Commissioners together may put the document in final form and then go out and rally public support.
"Hopefully we will believe in it enough to get done with the process," said Thompson, although he also emphasized that the policy is already serving a beneficial use. A member of the Park Board, Thompson said the Growth Policy was being used by the Park Board to create a Recreational Master Plan for the valley.
"We haven't just been sitting on our hands," he said.
Lund said that she believes the amendments proposed by the Planning Board make it a better document. "But it still needs some study," she said.
Lund said that the document probably could and should be shortened. She thought that this could be done not by eliminating anything but by simply referencing state law where it is redundant. She said it would take some more analysis and needs to be reduced to about 20 pages if the public is going to read it.
"But I think basically everyone believes that the AVFG and the Planning Board have done a great job," she said. She said that she thought about everyone was generally comfortable with the document. She said that the next step after completing the document was to mount a large campaign to get it accepted at the polls.
"I've got an optimistic view of getting this approved," she said.
By Victoria Howell
The officers of the Stevensville PTA have announced that this school year will be their last at the helm of the struggling parent-teacher organization.
Cathi Cook, PTA treasurer, read a letter at the January 13 school board meeting, in which the three top officers outlined their reasons for stepping down.
The letter, addressed to the "community of the Stevensville School District," (for full text, see Letters) states that since its inception 10 years ago, the group has had very few volunteers. In the last five years, volunteer numbers have continued to dwindle.
"Meetings are held every other month and the only people in attendance are the three officers and usually the elementary principal.... Our projects don't require a lot of time, but we have been unable to receive any help from the parents or the staff of the school."
In a recent membership drive, the PTA sent out information to 466 elementary students and their teachers, and received less than 10 responses. Seldom do any of the approximately 25 paid members attend any meetings.
The Stevensville PTA has sponsored a number of annual events: a pie social at the school's open house; participation in the Reflections program, a national student competition that encourages art, music and literature; Muffins for Mom and Donuts for Dad, when parents can come in for a morning visit with their child in the classroom; performances of the Missoula Children's Theater, a teacher appreciation breakfast; and popcorn and pizza parties for the students.
The letter encourages anyone interested in becoming more involved with the PTA, or in taking over the administration of the organization, to contact one of the three officers who signed the letter. They are Cathi Cook, Rita Pfau (president) and Mya Fadely (secretary), all of whom have held their offices for five years.
Jim Cloud, School Board chairman, told Cook that the board "appreciated all the hard work."
In the public comment portion of the meeting, Jim Van Sickle, representing the Stevensville Knights of Columbus, told the board that his group had met with local legislators and formulated a plan to introduce legislation in the next session that would "support anything and everything" with the word "God" in it.
"You people provided the glue for the conglomerate that we've formed," Van Sickle told the board. His comment drew applause from the audience. Jerry Grosbeck, another audience member, told the board that he had accompanied Spencer Erickson the young man who had distributed the "In God We Trust" posters at Stevensville School as his Eagle Scout project on a visit to meet with the county commissioners who subsequently decided to put the posters up throughout the county administrative building in Hamilton. In other business, the board:
The Bitter Root Water Forum and Tri-State Water Quality Council will sponsor a public meeting Thursday, January 29 at 7 p.m. in the Lone Rock School cafeteria, 1112 Three Mile Creek Road, to continue a "community conversation" about conditions in the Three Mile/Ambrose Creek watershed affecting water quality and possible options for water quality improvement.
The meeting's focus will be presentation and discussion of stream flow data collected in 2002 and 2003. Mike Roberts, a hydrologist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources (DNRC), will lead the presentation. Some aspects of stream flow intended for discussion include:
The meeting will offer further opportunity for local residents and other interested persons to voice issues and concerns to be considered in developing local community-based goals for a voluntary watershed improvement program.
This watershed assessment effort is sponsored through a Montana Department of Environmental Quality grant along with assistance from the U.S. Forest Service's Ravalli County Resource Advisory Committee, and is being administered through a collaboration of local residents, the Bitter Root Water Forum and the Tri-State Water Quality Council.
The information gathered from the assessment and the community will be used to better understand the role and importance of local creeks in the community, as well as how the community feels about maintaining or improving water quality and habitat conditions as the area's population continues to grow and change.
If you have any questions or comments regarding the watershed effort or the January 29 meeting, contact Jim Rokosch at 777-2511.
The public is invited to offer comments on the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) for the proposed Integrated Research Facility at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) during a meeting Thursday, January 22, at 7 p.m. in Hamilton City Hall.
Representatives of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who are overseeing the EIS will be present to receive oral and written comments. The meeting is an official National Environmental Policy Act proceeding to collect questions and comments from the public. Responses to the comments and questions will appear in the next EIS document.
NIH has proposed a new 105,132 square-foot building at RML that would contain offices, conference rooms, break areas and medical research laboratories at biosafety levels 2, 3 and 4 (BSL-2, -3 and -4). RML presently has BSL-2 and BSL-3 laboratories; the proposed BSL-4 laboratory would be 6,750 square feet of the total project. Congress has authorized $66.5 million for the facility.
NIH released the SDEIS on December 29, 2003, and has been accepting comments on the document since that time. The SDEIS incorporates information from the initial draft EIS issued last spring, from public comments received last summer and from new safety information developed.
The new information is primarily a historical safety analysis of BSL-3 and BSL-4 laboratory work (found in Appendix D) and an assessment of community safety and risk using "what if" scenarios (found in Chapter 4).
The SDEIS also addresses a variety of environmental effects that construction and operation of the proposed new facility might have on Hamilton and the surrounding communities. Such considerations include safety, air quality, noise, visual impact, wildlife, water quality and supply and economic effects.
The 45-day public comment period on the SDEIS concludes at midnight February 11, 2004. In addition to commenting at the Jan. 22 meeting, people also may send comments to Valerie Nottingham by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to Valerie Nottingham, NIH, B13/2W64, 9000 Rockville Pike, Bethesda MD 20892.
The SDEIS is available on the NIAID web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov/biodefense/public/envimpactstate.htm and at the following public libraries: Missoula Public Library, 301 E. Main, Missoula MT 59802-4799; Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula MT 59812-9936; Bitterroot Public Library, 306 State Street Hamilton MT 59840-2759; North Valley Public Library, 208 Main Street, Stevensville MT 59870.
NIH sent a copy of the SDEIS to people who formally commented on the initial DEIS; anyone may request a copy of the SDEIS by contacting Nottingham at 301-496-7775.
RML, a 33-acre campus in southwest Hamilton, is a component of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), based in Bethesda, MD. NIH is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. NIAID supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat infectious and immune-mediated illnesses, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, illness from potential agents of bioterrorism, tuberculosis, malaria, autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies.
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