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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Page One News at a Glance

Tin Cup Fire leads to evacuations

Rombo Mountain Fire continues to grow

County considers impact fees and ‘exactions’

Commissioners decide not to challenge variance

Tin Cup Fire leads to evacuations

By Michael Howell

One of the most recent fires to start in the Bitterroot, the Tin Cup Fire burning west of Darby, led to the evacuation of over three dozen homes in the area as of Monday evening, according to fire information officer Dixie Dies.

The fire was first reported about 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon and at that time covered about 20 acres at the bottom of Tin Cup Creek, according to Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull. By Monday evening it had grown to 375 acres. Initial responders from West Fork and Painted Rocks Rural Volunteer Fire Departments tried to flank the fire as it burned up the ridge towards Bunkhouse. But the fire quickly crested the ridge and compromised those fire lines, according to Bull. Heavy smoke precluded water drops from the air.

Bull said that a regional firefighting Type II team had been called in and was expected to arrive Tuesday afternoon. That team was expected to replace the initial responders on the fire by Wednesday morning. Although no precise cause for the fire has been determined, it is considered to be human caused. A base camp for firefighters has been established at the Darby school grounds. Fire lines on the eastern perimeter were being established by retardant drops from the air on Monday.

"Our intent is to protect the home side," said Bull. He said the western perimeter was not as important and did not present the same public safety hazard or other risks. Bull said that the initial response by six teams of local rural firefighters was praiseworthy.

Tin Cup Road has been closed at the Forest Service boundary. Forest Service Road 550 south of Lake Como is closed and Bunkhouse Road is closed at the end of the pavement. As of press time, Stage 2 level evacuation orders had been issued for Cerro Gordo Road and Camp 4 Road as well as Bunkhouse Road, Almosta Road, Stags Leap Road and Snowy Mountain Road and Tin Cup Road from Singing Pines Road north. Stage 1 advisory warnings of possible evacuation were issued for Moose Meadow Lane, Elk Range Way, Base Camp Road, Ravenwood Road and Northstar Drive.

The Tin Cup Fire was in a "state of flux" on Monday, according to Bull. North winds came up, pushing the fire in a southerly direction. Firefighters were pulled off the line at mid afternoon because of intense fire behavior, but later returned to the line along the southeast side of the fire between Tin Cup Creek and Tin Cup Road. A helicopter and two firefighting crews and two bull dozers were pulled off the Rombo Mountain Fire to aid in fighting the Tin Cup Fire.

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Rombo Mountain Fire continues to grow

By Michael Howell

The Rombo Mountain Fire, a lightning-caused fire located about 16 miles south of Conner, was first reported around 12:30 p.m. July 31. Three hours later it had grown to an estimated 300 acres. It is located on the West Fork Ranger District northeast of painted Rocks Reservoir.

Due to heavy fuels, quick fire growth, and difficult access, initial attack efforts were primarily air-based, with two heavy tankers, one single engine tanker, two medium helicopters and a heavy helicopter committed to the fire.

As of Monday evening the fire had grown to 2,000 acres in size. It was moving to the north and east and is established in Line Creek, Little boulder Creek, and Piquett Creek. Larry Svalberg's Incident Management Team continues to manage the fire with a total of 122 personnel. A fire line was being built along the west side of the fire Monday. Two crews were scheduled to be on line Tuesday.

Burning conditions are extreme, the terrain steep and rugged. The safety of firefighters and the public continues to be a number one concern.

The Stage 1 precautionary evacuation notice for Fire Protection Zone 13 issued by the Ravalli County Sheriff remains in effect, from the Rombo Campground north to Forest Service Road Number 5715. This is a precautionary step to allow residents to plan and prepare for an evacuation should the need to evacuate arise.

Local firefighters from the Painted Rocks and West Fork volunteer Fire Departments continue to assess homes to help owners prepare their properties in the event the fire should approach.

A closure order prohibiting public access on national forest roads or lands in the area of the fire has been in place since July 31. The Medicine Point Lookout, located four or five miles from the fire, is being wrapped in fire resistant material. On Monday, August 6, the Ravalli County Commissioners passed a population protection and evacuation resolution authorizing the Rombo Fire Incident Commander, Larry Svalberg, to make the call on when to issue any evacuation orders. The evacuation plan would then be implemented by the Ravalli County Sheriff's Office.

Maps and full descriptions of the closed area are available at Forest Service offices, and on line at Personnel are posted at the closure points to enforce the closures.

For additional information on the Rombo Mountain Fire call 821-0082 or visit the website at For information about the Tin Cup Fire near Darby call 821-4247. Additional information about fires on the Bitterroot National Forest can be found at

Governor Brian Schweitzer has declared a state of emergency due to the numerous fires raging across the state, and the extreme fire conditions. The declaration authorizes the National Guard to mobilize forces to assist in the firefighting effort. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issues a daily forecast and discussion of potential smoke impacts throughout the state at

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County considers impact fees and ‘exactions’

By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Commissioners established an Impact Fee Advisory Committee on Monday, July 30. It is one of the requirements encoded in recently adopted state law (Senate Bill 185) authorizing counties, towns and consolidated local governments to impose impact fees upon new development to fund all or a portion of the public facility capital improvements affected by the new development.

A preliminary Impact Fee Feasibility Analysis was conducted by TischlerBise for the county and published in February of 2006. It recommended adoption of impact fees for the county and the public schools. Since then a Florence -Carlton School District Study was published on August 8, 2006. That analysis resulted in a recommended impact fee of $10,400 per new residence in the district. A Corvallis School District Study completed on March 1, 2007 arrived at a fee of $7,260. Those fees are designed to address only the cost of future capital improvements that would be required to meet the growth in student population directly related to the development. The developer, essentially, is being charged his pro-rata share of the cost of future buildings required to accommodate a growing student population.

Although taxes collected from the new home owner are in theory supposed to go towards that building and the cost of educating the students, there is a delay in the collection of those monies and, according to Ravalli County School Superintendent Ernie Jean, “that presents a real difficulty.”

Educating the students that are produced by that new household for a year (or more, depending upon how long it takes to get it on the tax roles) can be a costly affair. Jean’s made the effort to nail down those costs. He’s got figures based on the 2006-2007 school year for every school district in the county. By dividing the school's total budget by the number of students, he claims, we get a pretty fair picture of the cost to local taxpayers of educating a student for a year.

School Total Budget Students count Budget per pupil
Corvallis $8,311,918 1,431  $5,808.47
Stevi Elem $4,240,944 582 $7,286.85
Stevi High $3,760,312 450 $8,356.25
Hamilton $9,924,343 1,558 $6,369.92
Victor $2,125,504 316 $6,726.28
Darby $3,718,565 458 $8,119.14
Lone Rock Elem$1,757,258 292 $6,018.01
Florence $5,655,692 991 $5,707.06

This gap in collection of taxes can quickly become an enormous strain on a growing school district. But to make matters worse, when you look at the total number of dollars being collected in taxes for each school district and divide it by the number of students it reveals that the taxes currently being collected cannot meet the current costs of educating the students. Federal and state funds help make up the difference.

School Total tax levy Tax levy per pupil (non-capital) Total tax levy per pupil (plus capital)
Corvallis $2,095,612 $1,464.44 $1,640.44
Stevi Elem $1,982,036 $3,405.56 $3,602.96
Stevi High $2,248,666 $4,997.03 $4,997.03
Hamilton $3,548,638 $2,277.69 $2,846.40
Victor $775,497 $2,454.10 $2,709.81
Darby $1,308,577 $2,857.15 $2,857.15
Lone Rock Elem $669,247 $2,291.94 $2,661.06
Florence $1,589,707 $1,604.14 $1,710.23

Like the schools, the county does not collect enough money in local property taxes to really meet its expenses. But, like the schools, the county government depends on the federal government and other sources to make up the difference. One problem is that, in this county, the federal government owns 75 percent of the land and is exempt from paying local property taxes. To date, however, the federal government, recognizing the burden this places on counties that have a substantial amount of federal land, makes a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to counties. This payment, however, is at the lawmaker’s discretion, and not only changes from year to year (though not significantly in recent years), but could be completely eliminated in the future. It is always a hot debate.

Assessing impact fees on new development is one way the county can begin to meet the costs created by new development. But this fee, according to the law, can only be assessed to meet the cost of capital expenditures required to meet the growing demand for services, not the cost of the growing services themselves.

In the present arrangement of things, the cost of services required to meet the needs of a new subdivision, for instance, are only recoverable from the developer in the form of an “exaction” that is negotiated during subdivision review to “mitigate” the negative impacts that the development will have on the public on the county’s infrastructure and the environment.

In the recent approval of Moeise Meadows Subdivision, for instance, it was determined that the development would have a negative impact on public health and safety by overstressing the Sheriff's Office. The developer offered to pay $269 per lot to the Sheriff's Department. Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff argued that the impact of the subdivision would require the purchase of another patrol car and suggested $1,000. A compromise deal was accepted of $500 per lot.

The County Commissioners are currently trying to devise a formula to determine the true impact costs for such services and have had discussions with Hamilton City Planner Dennis Strange. The City of Hamilton has recently enacted impact fees for development based upon an analysis of costs. Strange told the county commissioners recently that such an analysis could be done in about 60 days. They invited him to submit a proposal to do the analysis.

The idea is that through a combination of impact fees and “exactions” the county can recover the costs generated by new development rather than subsidizing it.

The recently created Impact Fee Advisory Committee is required by law to have at least one representative of the development community and one certified public accountant. The Commissioners appointed CPA Bob Harkin and developer Mark Gantt to meet those requirements. They were appointed to two-year terms. Also appointed to the board, out of 15 total applicants, was John Meakin, for a two-year term, and Candi Jerke and Richard Ellis to one-year terms.

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Commissioners decide not to challenge variance

By Michael Howell

The County Commissioners met twice last week to consider possibly challenging the June 24 decision of the Zoning Board of Adjustment to grant a variance to the Brooks Hotel subdivision. The proposal would create 14 condominium units on 3.35 acres near Corvallis. The current Interim Zoning regulations limit development to one dwelling per two acres. The variance, which was granted by the board, exempts the developer from that basic restriction. Despite some public opposition, the Commission decided not to challenge the variance decision.

At a meeting on Tuesday, July 31, the Commissioners were asked by several members of the public to challenge the decision of the Zoning Board of Adjustment in court, the only legal avenue of appeal.

According to the law, approval of a variance requires that the Board make a determination, based upon findings of fact, that it meets all nine criteria outlined in the Interim Zoning Regulations. The County Planning staff submitted a findings of fact that the proposal failed to meet at least four of those criteria. Members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment found otherwise, except for Board Chairman Phil Connelly.

Bitterrooters for Planning, a local non-profit organization, stated in a letter that "the hearing was a travesty that belies any conceivable attempt BOA members might have had at discharging their duties as prescribed by law. The cited justifications of the BOA are foreign to any rational thought process and were obviously designed to circumvent the 1 per 2 initiative passed overwhelmingly by the electorate in November 2006." The organization quotes, in its letter, Montana law stating, "the board of adjustment may, in appropriate cases and subject to appropriate conditions and safeguards, make special exceptions to the terms of the zoning resolution in harmony with its general purposes and intent." The group argues that the decision was a slap in the face to that "intent."

Developer Russ Hunt argued that if the Board of Adjustment followed the interpretation of Bitterrooters for Planning no piece of land in the valley could could meet the criteria for a variance. His attorney, Jennifer Lint, told the commissioners that if they challenged the board's decision they would lose in court.

County Attorney George Corn said that the county could challenge the decision if it was dissatisfied with the decision or thought that the board was abusing its discretion.

Commissioners Greg Chilcott and Alan Thompson defended the Board's actions.

"They were trying to do the right thing," said Commissioner Thompson.

No decision was made and the meeting was postponed in part to get input from members of the Board of Adjustment and review records of the original BOA meeting.

On August 3 the commissioners met again.

At that meeting Commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff expressed reluctance about the county suing one of its own boards.

One member of the Zoning Board, William Hester, said that he would not comment without a lawyer. Board of Adjustment Chairman Phil Connelly, who voted against the variance, said that it was a good proposal but it did not meet all the criteria to grant a variance.

Commissioners Thompson and Chilcott supported the Board's decision, Grandstaff and Jim Rokosch were for challenging the decision and Commissioner Kathleen Driscoll was undecided, claiming that she needed more information. Under pressure to vote she voted against filing suit, siding with Chilcott and Thompson.

The Board of Adjustment's decision can still be challenged in court by anyone who chooses to, it does not have to be the County Commissioners. The deadline for filing suit is 30 days after the decision, which would be Friday, August 10.

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