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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Page One News at a Glance

Proposal to re-open Lost Horse Canyon rock quarry draws fire

Voters reject Stevi School levies

Filing deadline passes for municipal elections

Board of Adjustments approves first variance to Interim Zoning

Proposal to re-open Lost Horse Canyon rock quarry draws fire

By Michael Howell

The Darby Ranger District is considering a proposal from the Ravalli County Road and Bridge Department to re-open the Lost Horse Quarry located about 4.5 miles up Lost Horse Road, just across the road from the bridge that crosses Lost Horse Creek. The proposal has drawn strong criticism from a coalition of residents along the road, climbers and other recreational users of the area.

Ravalli County Road and Bridge Department Supervisor David Ohnstad called it a viable and responsible project which will benefit both the Forest Service and the County. The 4.9-acre site is expected to yield about 10,000 to 15,000 cubic yards of material a year over a 10-year period for a total of 125,000 to 150,000 cubic yards over the course of the entire project. Ohnstad said that the work is only expected to be conducted from mid-October to mid-April each year. He said that he expects the cost to the county to run about $2 to $3 per ton compared to a regular cost of about $14 per ton.

Ohnstad said that the plan of operation and reclamation was sent to the Forest Service for review after an on-site review last fall with Forest Service experts, including a botanist, historian and recreation official. He said the concerns noted by those experts were incorporated into the plan.

"We think we have been very thorough," said Ohnstad, who is aware of growing controversy over the project.

He said that he believes the controversy is being fueled by a lot of misinformation.

"We want people involved in the discussion but we want an honest discussion. We are not going to put a gate on the road. We are not going to do any blasting and drilling. We are not going to take down the High Wall," he said.

The High Wall is a popular spot for climbers to test their skills. Ohnstad insists that the project will only involve taking the loose fall at the base of the rock wall. The plan also calls for an onsite crusher to reduce the rock for transportation. The aggregate will be processed at another location. The result will be rock chips for chip seal projects and surface aggregate for roads.

"You can't do anything in the road business without some people protesting or objecting," said Ohnstad. "If there are some meaningful questions or comments, we will address them. I haven't heard them yet."

But he will, if members of the Lost Horse Canyon Coalition have their way. They have already prepared a list of questions, in fact, that they believe are important and relevant to the project and should be answered before any such project is permitted at the old quarry. The group's objections fall into three main categories concerning safety, recreation and effects on wildlife.

They point to the narrow Lost Horse Road, with its many tight, blind corners, and its use by walkers, bikers, horseback riders and ATV riders as a serious safety conflict with the proposed heavy truck traffic. A Darby School bus also uses the road. When the Lost Horse Quarry was last operated, they claim, there were reported to be only nine homes on Lost Horse Road. At last count, they claim there are now 75 homes in the immediate area.

They argue that for over 40 years, while the quarry has lain idle for the most part, the Forest Service has sunk a lot of tax dollars into making the area a prime destination for recreation enthusiasts of every sort. A number of campsites have been developed in the area with a heavily used campground and fly-fishing area just across the road from the quarry.

They point to the cliffs immediately above the quarry now being used extensively year round by climbing enthusiasts. They list a host of other recreational activities that occur in the area. All will be negatively affected by the project, they contend.

They point to the resident population of mountain goats that inhabit the cliffs overlooking the quarry, as well as the elk and deer, turkeys, coyotes, mountain lions and other species that inhabit the area and stand to be negatively affected by the project.

Coalition members also question many of the facts and claims made in the project plan. They dispute the amount of fallen rock at the quarry after making their own measurements and estimations and having them confirmed by a retired USFS engineer. They estimate about 13,000 cubic yards of fallen rock lie loose in the quarry, far short of the 150,000 cubic yards the county aims to remove. Coalition members wonder where the additional rock will come from without blasting or drilling. They also question the size of the project, estimated by officials at 4.9 acres. Anything under 6 acres does not require an Environmental Analysis. They claim that the true area that will have to be scoured for the proposed amount of rock will be much greater, closer to 9 acres. They also question the cost analysis resulting in an estimated cost of $2 to $3 per ton for the gravel. This cost only reflects the cost of crushing the gravel, they claim, and does not include any other expenses such as transport, processing, road construction or rehabilitation, etc. They question whether the Lost Horse Road could even be improved or maintained in such a way to take the kind of traffic being proposed and not remain a serious safety risk. They also wonder what plans the Forest Service has to monitor the impacts of the project on the homeowners and other users of the road, on wildlife, and on the scenic and recreational values in the area.

"The Lost Horse area is both a beautiful, quiet residential neighborhood and one of the most prime recreational areas in the Bitterroot Valley," writes the coalition. "It is not an appropriate location for a rock crushing plant and gravel hauling operation for even a limited time, let alone the proposed 10 year plan."

Coalition members are seeking to involve the County Commissioners in the issue as well as seeking the aid of Senators Baucus and Tester in their efforts to stop the project.

Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff, who attended a meeting at the quarry last month, said that she understands the need of the County Road Department for gravel and supports them in their efforts to find necessary materials but she believes there are some significant safety issues involved, especially in relation to the road, that may need more examination before any such project could be approved.

The time period allowed for public comment about the project, set to expire this week, has now been officially extended, according to a Darby Ranger District news release. The deadline for providing public comment has been extended to the end of the month. Written, facsimile, hand-delivered, oral, and electronic comments will be accepted until July 31, 2007. Written comments must be submitted to Chuck Oliver, Darby District Ranger, P.O. Box 388, Darby MT 59839. For more information, contact Elizabeth Ballard at 777-7421.

Anyone interested in contacting the Lost Horse Canyon Coalition may call 363-2526.

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Voters reject Stevi School levies

By Michael Howell

Two levies placed on the ballot by the Stevensville School District were voted down by the public at a recent election marked by very low voter turnout. The levy amounts were $110,000 for the Elementary School (K-8), and $124,400 for the High School (9-12).

The Elementary School levy, of $110,000, was defeated by a vote of 246 for the levy and 272 against.

The High School levy of $124,400 was defeated by a total vote of 297 for the levy and 382 against. That vote, broken down into districts, since the Lone Rock District also got to vote on the High School levy, was 51 for the levy and 107 against. In the Stevensville District the voting was 246 for the levy and 275 against.

Only ten percent of the voters in the Stevensville District turned out for the election, while only seven percent of the registered voters went to the polls in the Lone Rock District.

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Filing deadline passes for municipal elections

By Michael Howell

With the passing of the deadline for filing to run for municipal offices in the next election, Hamilton appears to be a hotbed for political contests, while Darby and Stevensville did not even draw enough candidates to fill their open council seats.

One position in Hamilton, that of Municipal Court Judge, is going uncontested with currently serving Michael J. Reardon the only official candidate. But the three council seats open for election in Wards 1, 2, and 3, are being contested with Ward 3 burgeoning into a three-way race.

The race in Ward 1 will be between incumbent councilor Robert Sutherland and former mayor Joe Petrusaitus.

Sutherland, a retired logger and forester who has served one term on the city council, hopes to retain his seat for another term. Sutherland said that his reasons for running the first time had to do with the arbitrary and costly decisions being made by administrators and condoned by the previous council that were driving up city taxes higher than they really need to be. He said the work to correct some of these errors, such as collecting the past due utility bills from Rocky Mountain Laboratory, is still in progress and he would like to see it completed.

Petrusaitus has worked for Bitterroot Laundry and Dry Cleaners for 27 years. He has also served a four-year term as Mayor of Hamilton, two years as a City Councilor, and three years on the city's Zoning Board of Adjustments. He said that he was not ready to quit his public service and would like to serve the city a few more years. Off duty, he remarks, his passions include reading and camping.

The race in Ward 2 will be between incumbent Councilor Robert Scott and Hamilton businessman Al Mitchell.

Scott has weathered a contentious term on the City Council. He was accused, but then acquitted, by jury trial, of misdemeanor charges of assault and also survived a subsequent recall election. He has been a strong advocate of sound city planning and fiscal management as well as being very critical of past city practices in that regard.

Mitchell is owner of the Paper Clip in downtown Hamilton and serves as chairman on the Hamilton School District Board of Trustees. He has also served as Treasurer and President of the Bitterroot Chamber of Commerce in his 6-year tenure with the organization, and has served as President of the Hamilton United Businesses a few times over the last several years. Mitchell said he has a real interest in the Hamilton community and an interest in the future generations of our valley. He said that the City of Hamilton's proceedings have been contentious and he would like to bring an element of civility and compromise to the council.

A three-way race is on in Ward 3 between incumbent DeeAnn Harbaugh, Jenny West, a local fishing guide, and Bob Frost, who has 19 years of experience in Planning and Zoning and has served on a Board of Adjustment and the Hamilton Zoning Commission. None of these candidates returned telephone calls from the Bitterroot Star on Monday in time for publication.

In Stevensville, incumbent Susan Evans, of Ward 1, is the only candidate to file. No one filed for the open seat in Ward 2, currently occupied by Bob Summers.

In Darby, with five council seats open for election, only three candidates have filed. Rick Scheele filed for Mayor, Lisa Poe filed for a council seat in Ward 2, and Ned Trowbridge filed for the unexpired seat in Ward 2. No one filed for the Ward 1 or the councilor-at-large seats on the city council.

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Board of Adjustments approves first variance to Interim Zoning

By Michael Howell

The newly established Ravalli County Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) approved its first variance at a meeting Monday, June 25. Despite a recommendation from the County Planning staff to deny the variance request, the board approved it, basically exempting the proposal from compliance with the Interim Zoning restrictions that limit subdivisions to 1 dwelling per 2 acres.

The proposal by developer Russ Hunt, called the Brooks Hotel Project, would involve creating 14 condominium units on 3.35 acres, with two condo units on each of 7 lots. It is located on the Eastside Highway south of the Corvallis School. Plans call for the development to be served by the Corvallis Sewer District.

County Planner Shaun Morrell explained the staff's recommendation for denial based upon failure to meet four of the nine criteria required for approval. According to the regulations, failure to meet any one of the nine criteria is enough to nix the variance. The planning staff reported that the proposal failed to meet the criteria because no hardship based upon the physical characteristics of the property was demonstrated. Morrell noted that the Planning staff interpreted hardship to mean something other than "financial hardship." The Planning staff also found that there was not enough information submitted by the developer to determine that the variance was necessary to give the developer a "reasonable rate of return" on his investment. Nor was there enough information submitted to determine if 14 units on 3.35 acres was the "minimum deviation" from the rules needed to make a reasonable return. Finally, the Planning staff also found that there was nothing peculiar or unique about this property that would require such a variance.

Developer Russ Hunt countered that he has been working toward this project for about 10 years already. He feels that it is in harmony with the surrounding development, has been approved by the Corvallis School District and Fire District and would be on the local sewer system, all this making it a good use of the property. He said that with unknown future market conditions and construction costs it was not possible to submit information establishing a reasonable rate of return. He did claim to have invested about $400,000 to date on the project including the cost of the sewer line, the road, the land itself, and utilities and fencing.

Pressed on the question of whether it was the minimum deviation that was required to make a reasonable rate of return on his investment, Hunt responded saying, "It's a major deviation, no doubt about it. But what is the difference between a major deviation and a minor deviation? A deviation is a deviation."

His own attorney, David Markette, quickly disagreed, arguing that it was a minor deviation given the kind of surrounding development in the area. He argued that a "common sense" interpretation of the criteria would lead to a positive determination on all the criteria. He argued that every piece of property is peculiar and all land is unique.

Several members of the public testified in favor of granting the variance. They mostly argued that it was a good proposal in harmony with the area, and probably in harmony with any kind of zoning that might be enacted in the future since such zoning should encourage development next to existing infrastructure.

Several people also spoke against granting the variance. Some questioned the legitimacy of the board to grant a variance to the Interim Zoning regulations, arguing instead that the board would have authority only after comprehensive zoning was adopted. Others argued in favor of the Planning staff's assessment of the criteria. Several expressed the fear, as Planning Board member Ben Hillicoss put it, that if the variance was approved it would be "opening Pandora's Box. It will open a flood gate of variance applications and delay the county zoning process." Almost all those speaking against granting the variance agreed that regardless of the possible merits of this particular development it should be put off until the countywide zoning was enacted. It should not be allowed to circumvent the will of the voters, which was to drastically reduce development and basically work as a moratorium while countywide zoning was being developed.

Deputy County Attorney Alex Beal assured the board that it was a legitimate entity and necessary for the Interim Zoning to be legitimate. He cautioned the board to focus on the nine criteria and not the "big picture."

Board member Lee Foss argued that the property was unique due to being bordered on two sides by ditches. He said that limiting development to 1 dwelling per 2 acres would preclude the development and create the hardship of dealing with the subsequent weed problem on the acreage.

Board member Will Zeiler said that he considered the proposal a good development in keeping with the spirit of the Interim Zoning regulations.

"If we interpret the (Interim Zoning) Resolution to mean flat nothing (is allowed), then this board's a straw man and a punching bag for both sides of the issue. But if we are indeed a legally established board, then there has to be a need to see a variance of some kind being appropriate in certain situations or we wouldn't be here," said Zeiler.

The board made positive determinations on each of the nine criteria before approving the variance.

Board chairman Phil Connelly was the only dissenting vote. He disagreed primarily with the conception that the variance being approved was in keeping with the spirit of the Interim Zoning resolution and he disagreed with the notion that the development met the criteria of being the minimum deviation from that resolution.

"If you did 2 lots it would still be in the general spirit of the 1 per 2, maybe even 3 lots, but when you get up to 14 units I think you're getting pretty far away from the spirit and intent of the Resolution," said Connelly.

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