Page One News at a Glance
By Michael Howell
Officials from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) were in Hamilton last week to inform the County Commissioners that the department was pursuing a traffic study on Highway 93 in the area of the Stevi Wye and was attempting to expedite the process. State traffic official Danielle Bolan told the commissioners that the study had been initiated by an internal request, even before the official requests made following the recent pedestrian accidents. The department was aiming to get the study results in front of the state Transportation Commission at its April meeting. She said that this would mean condensing the usual time-frames involved.
Bolan explained to the commissioners that MDT only conducts the traffic study. The department does not have the authority to set or change any speed limits. The state Transportation Commission sets the speed limits. She said that speed limits are generally set around the state with 75 mph for the interstates and 70 for the state highways, except for Highway 93, which is set at 65. She said the Transportation Commission has the power to set special speed limits, but it requires a speed study be done. The last traffic study to be done at the Stevi Wye was in the year 2000, according to Bolan. No change in the 65 mph speed limit was warranted at that time, she said.
MDT's speed study at the Stevi Wye will include the use of speed radar and road tubes stretched across the highway. Based upon actual speeds recorded over a 24-hour period and using what is called the 85th percentile, the department will arrive at a recommended speed limit. Combined with a review of the accident history over the last three years a report will be made to the Transportation Commission.
The state Transportation Commission, at a public hearing, will consider the MDT study as well as local community comment and concerns. Those written comments and concerns can be submitted to the Ravalli County County Commissioners at 215 S. 4th Street Hamilton MT 59840. Due to the expedited time frame, however, the commissioners will not have a full 60 days to consider their comments.
MDT did also recently receive a request from the Highway Patrol to conduct such a study. Highway Patrolman Scott Bennett, who responded to both of the recent accidents, made the request after the second pedestrian accident within a six-month period involving teenage girls. Twelve-year-old Sheylynn Cordle was hit and seriously injured while trying to cross the highway just north of the Wye intersection on September 15. No tickets were issued in the accident. Then, a few months later, 15-year-old Sandra DuBose was hit within a few feet of the same spot, also suffering serious injury. No tickets were issued to the driver in this case either.
Commissioner Alan Thompson noted that, since the study in 2000, these two accidents have occurred. He also noted, and others agreed, that a significant amount of development has occurred in the area of the intersection. Also, a very large sign that, in the past, illuminated the area, has also been removed.
Thompson said, "The accidents that we've had there call for some action." He said that we could not really afford to wait for the coming highway improvement project in 2008. A pedestrian underpass just south of the Wye intersection is planned as part of those improvements. Thompson said that every effort should be made to do something in the meantime. He said that 45 mph was a more reasonable speed limit for the area and that some lighting was needed.
Bolan said that the best bet for that was to get something before the state Transportation Commission in April.
By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Planning Board has decided to recommend to the Board of County Commissioners that it establish a Streamside Setback Committee to develop some streamside setback regulations for the county. The decision came after a lengthy period of public comment and subsequent discussion among board members. The recommendation to establish the committee came originally from the planning staff and included a proposal for a 13-member board. But before the meeting was over, the proposed number of board members had increased to 17 and it was agreed to offer two options to the Commissioners, if they choose to establish the board. One would be a 17-member board with all voting members, the other would be a 17-member board with some non-voting members.
The original proposal for the board make-up, put forward by county planner Shaun Morrell, included a professional engineer or surveyor, three scientific experts from appropriate fields, a member from the Planning Board, the County Board of Health, the Bitterroot Conservation District, the Bitterroot Valley Board of Realtors, the Bitterroot Building Association, the Right to Farm & Ranch Board, the Bitter Root Water Forum, and two citizens at large.
Morrell noted at the beginning of the meeting that the Planning Department had already received some public comments about the proposal. He said that several had expressed concerns about the composition and balance of the committee.
It was noted that County Attorney George Corn had made a policy recommendation, not really legal advice, that the setback issue be dealt with directly by the commissioners rather than establishing a committee.
The meeting room was full and the Planning Board heard from about 21 people and organizations about the proposal. At least 16 people and organizations spoke in favor of establishing the committee. Four or five spoke against it. However, many of those (over half) that spoke in favor of setting up the committee expressed some concerns about the make-up of the committee as proposed by the planning department.
Ira Holt, a representative of the Smart Growth Coalition and other valley conservation organizations, expressed support for the formation of a committee and submitted a history of the current efforts at addressing the issue of setbacks.
Jim Rokosch, a candidate for County Commissioner, said that he supported the committee concept and suggested it could be easily folded into the work being done on countywide zoning. He expressed some concerns about the proposed composition of the board. Fred Weisbecker of the local chapter of Audubon also expressed support for the committee and for representation by a "wide variety of stakeholders."
Representatives of the Bitterroot River Protection Association and Friends of the Bitterroot expressed support but also suggested that their organizations be considered for inclusion on the committee to provide needed balance on issues of fish and wildlife.
Terri Polumsky, of the Bitterroot Valley Board of Realtors, objected to the formation of the committee. She felt that the formation of a committee could potentially undermine the efforts made to date by the Board of Realtors and jeopardize their funding. Since last May, the Board of Realtors has been spearheading an effort to formulate a local stream setback ordinance with an accompanying map.
In May the commissioners approved a letter of support for a grant that Polumsky said, at various public meetings, was from the National Board of Realtors, or via that organization from the Land Use Institute, in Washington D.C. She said once again at this meeting that $50,000 of a $100,000 grant was already spent on the mapping project and that it was 40 percent completed. She said that she was concerned that if a committee was established it might not "take this route" and jeopardize the project's funding.
Following the meeting, when asked for clarification about the source of the funding for the mapping project, Polumsky told the Bitterroot Star that in fact no grant money had ever been received to date. She said that because of delays in the project and the passing of some deadlines, the grant request expired. She said that it was the local Board of Realtors that put up the $50,000 that has been spent. She said, however, that the Board of Realtors was renewing the application process with their original source, which she now refuses to identify, as well as other sources.
"While we're quite confident about the funding, we are still awaiting final word. We do not feel it is right to release our sources until funding is secured," wrote Polumsky in an e-mail.
Kathleen Driscoll, a local realtor and county commission candidate, said that she had a problem with the Board of Realtors doing everything. She said the county could get sued for enacting an ordinance that was put forward by one particular group.
"I believe spreading out the responsibility to more of the community is a good thing," said Driscoll.
Commissioner candidate Richard Marcus said that the situation actually presented two wonderful opportunities and that there was no reason for the Board of Realtors not to go through with the mapping project as part of the general effort.
Retired wildlife biologist John Ormiston was critical of the Realtors' efforts, saying that they had used their money to take over what was supposed to be a collaborative group effort.
"If the map is 40 percent done," asked Ormiston, "why haven't we seen it?"
Bitterrooot Chapter of Trout Unlimited president Eddie Olwell said that TU gave the committee approach its full support. But he said representatives of hunting and fishing values were noticeably absent from the committee. He was also critical of the proposed ordinance that the Board of Realtors produced following a series of public meetings. He said that it was not a locally produced work but pretty much a carbon copy of the setback ordinance from a town called Lennex, Kansas. He had some documents to prove it. He questioned its appropriateness.
"I don't think they have the same kind of trout streams we do in Lennex, Kansas," he said.
Alexandra Morton thanked the Realtors for their efforts on behalf of property owners and criticized the notion of streamside setbacks as a form of government "takings."
"We are considering stripping people of their private property rights," said Morton.
Another person suggested that some voluntary practice guidelines for the streams, like the logging industry's Best Management Practices, would be better than forcing people with regulations.
Bob Holly defended the Board of Realtors, saying that they were offering the county a free gift. He said that a ton of work had already been done and that the realtors were not going to benefit.
"It's a free gift," said Holly.
During board discussion, Planning Board member Dan Huls suggested increasing the number of proposed committee members to 17 by adding two hydrologists and three more citizen at large seats. He said that anyone from one of the groups that felt left out could run for these citizen at large seats. Board member Ben Hillicoss raised the question as to whether they should all be voting members or not.
In the end a motion to recommend establishment of a committee passed unanimously along with two options of a 17-member board, all voting, or a 17-member board with a restricted number of voters.
By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners approved a small subdivision last Thursday on the condition that it conform to the County Attorney's opinion, expected this week, as to whether the emergency zoning ordinance now in effect allows houses to be "clustered" on lots less than two acres so long as the average density of the entire subdivision is one dwelling per two acres or greater. Or does the zoning limit apply to lot size, making a two-acre lot the smallest possible lot size in a subdivision? The developer, in this case, agreed to conform with the decision, whatever it is, even if it means re-designing the subdivision if the County Attorney rules that the "one per two" restriction applies to lot size and not average density.
Some lots in the subdivision as designed are smaller than two acres. The four-lot subdivision of 8.72 acres, on the corner of Grizzly Way and Cougar Lane northeast of Stevensville, was designed before the emergency zoning was passed, according to consultant Jake Kammerer. He said that the current arrangement with lots less than two acres could be redrawn to meet a one dwelling per two acre lot size requirement, but it would be at some expense to the developer. He also stated that in his view the emergency zoning limit applied to density and not to lot size.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott was in agreement. He read from the zoning ordinance and state law and said, "We're talking density, not lot size."
Commissioner Alan Thompson also agreed. He stated that he heard various supporters of the initiative respond to criticism that it would lead to sprawl by saying that clustering could still happen.
"To come back now and say this seems not honest," said Thompson.
Although the commissioners were in agreement about the interpretation that would allow clustering, the matter had already been referred to the County Attorney, so it was agreed to wait upon his ruling. Under the gun to take some action on the subdivision, since it was the last day in the timeline set by state law, the Commissioners approved it, with the developer's agreement, on the condition that it meet the requirements as the County Attorney interprets them.
Phil Taylor, author of the one per two Interim Zoning Ordinance, said that this question was hashed out with the County Attorney when the initiative was first being prepared. He said that there is no question that the intent of the initiative and the zoning ordinance was to limit the smallest lot size to two acres. He accused the planning department of knowing full well what the intent of the initiative was and accused them of trying to circumvent it.
"They can't tell me what my intent was," said Taylor. "And they can't change the intent of the law while I am still alive."
By Michael Howell
Michael Howell, publisher of the Bitterroot Star, is the recipient of the 2006 Outdoor Writer Award from the Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society. He was honored for his efforts to inform the public of natural resource and conservation issues.
"Of particular importance are your exemplary efforts committed to the Mitchell Slough issue," said the award letter. "...Your tireless research, which has included hours of interviewing individuals, reading over water rights, and reviewing past legal issues, has made you an expert on the subject. In fact, for some time you knew more than any single individual about the history, water use, and sportsman's use of Mitchell Slough..."
"...the Montana Chapter appreciates your conviction and determination toward aquatic resource issues. Please keep up the good work."
Howell received his award at an awards banquet in Missoula on February 14. More than 200 members of the American Fisheries Society attended the event.
By Michael Howell
Cindy Swanson, the Forest Service's Regional Director of Fish, Wildlife and Rare Plants, visited the Bitterroot Valley recently to present a national Nature Watch Award to a group of Bitterroot organizations who host the Bitterroot Birding and Nature Festival.
An eclectic mix of partners, representing civic clubs and the Chamber of Commerce, the University of Montana and a private wildlife refuge, conservation organizations and private businesses, and state and federal agencies, pull together each year to make the annual festival a success.
The festival is based at the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge.
The Nature Watch Program is sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, and is designed to encourage people to experience wildlife, fish and flowers in their natural settings. Activities sponsored by the program promote recreational viewing opportunities, facilitate learning about the environment, and encourage conservation efforts and wise use of the natural resources while contributing to local economies.
Award recipients included: Deborah Richie Oberbillig, Interpretative consultant; Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce Director Diane Wolfe; Montana Natural History Center's Gabrielle Sivitz and Anita Maxwell; Stevensville Main Street Association Director Joan Prather; Stevensville Hotel's Robbie Springs; Five Valleys Audubon Society's Jane Rock; Teller Wildlife Refuge employees Amy Monteith and Sam Lawry; Avian Science Center at the University of Montana; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Montana Birding and Nature Trail Committee; Northwest Design graphic designer Peggy Woods; Bitterroot Audubon Society's representative Fred Weisbecker; Stevensville School District representative Dennis Kimzey; Trapper Creek Job Corps Center; National Forest Foundation; Rapp Family Foundation; Rocky Mountain Bank, Stevensville; Lolo National Forest employee Sue Reel; Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge employees Bob Danley, Deb Goslin, and Steve Whitson; Bitterroot National Forest employees Dave Lockman, Sharon Ritter and Julie Schreck.
By Michael Howell
Councilor DeAnne Harbaugh said that the city was facing unprecedented growth and it was important to get people on the Planning Board who represent the citizens in the process and not some special interest. She said that she believed that Commissioner Lyons may have a conflict of interest and be too closely tied to development interests.
Councilor Scott agreed saying, "When Mr. Lyons sat on the County Planning Board, he was objected to by numerous citizen's groups as having, as councilor Harbaugh put it, something of a conflict in that he is associated with the development industry in this county. His record on the Planning Board, and as far as I can tell as a Commissioner, supports that assessment. I believe we should not accept Mr. Lyons on the City Planning Board."
The motion to appoint Lyons to the Planning Board was defeated on a 4 to 2 vote with Councilors Jerry Steele and Mike LaSalle voting in favor of his appointment. Discussion about appointment of Ron Uemura also centered around his career as a civil engineer and whether or not he was too closely tied to development interests. Supporters said that his experience would be a valuable asset on the Planning Board.
The vote on Uemura was split 3 to 3, with LaSalle, Steele and Hendrickson voting to approve the appointment and Scott, Sutherland and Harbaugh voting against. Mayor Randazzo broke the tie, voting to approve Uemura's appointment.
The appointment of Deidre Engelman to a two-year term on the Planning Board was unanimously approved.
In other business the City Council:
• Transferred the deed of ownership of Townsend Lane to Todd Lindsey Trust pursuant to an agreement made on October 21, 2004.