Big Sky infrastructure – What to do with wastewater and workforce housing?

Members of the Madison County Planning Board gathered in Big Sky Mountain Village on June 29 for the board’s annual meeting held in Big Sky. Partners from Big Sky Water and Sewer District, Lone Mountain Land Company, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Resort and more met with the board to discuss infrastructure issues, like wastewater and housing.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Kevin Germain, vice president of planning and development for Lone Mountain Land Company, informed the board that Lone Mountain Land Company has been working with the resort to update the area’s overall development plan (ODP).

“We should have it ready for your review in September,” Germain told the board.

Darlene Tussing, board vice president, thanked the group for persisting on creating an ODP.

“I want to say we are really appreciative that you guys are going through with this,” Tussing said. “We know it’s something needed in this area, so thank you for being proactive about it.”


Wastewater issues

“Area-wide, wastewater is an issue we’ve been talking about in Big Sky for a long time,” said Mike DuCuennois, with the Yellowstone Club. “We’ve recently made an effort to aggregate our overall development plans to create one, big, comprehensive plan.”

The Big Sky area is made up of multiple partners – the Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks, Big Sky Water and Sewer District, Big Sky Resort, Moonlight Basin and more. Originally, each of those entities worked independently to manage their own wastewater needs, but with Big Sky continuing to grow, the need for an all-inclusive plan arose, DuCuennois said.

“If the area builds up all its density in the next 10, 20 years, we will have a problem with the sewer system,” he said. “Before 20 years, we’re going to have significant disposal issues in Big Sky.”

Currently, 100 percent of Big Sky’s wastewater is used as irrigation and 100 percent of Big Sky’s solids are used as fertilization, according to Ron Edwards, manager of wastewater and sewer for the district.

“By the fall, our lagoons are nearly empty,” he said. “But then we accumulate over the winter and if you see them in April, they are pretty full and we need to start irrigating.”

Edwards agreed with DuCuennois, saying the area is estimated to be approximately 45 percent built out, so the area will have an issue with storage down the road.

Germain said the work that has been completed on remedying the wastewater situation over the last nine months has focused on creating a “holistic plan to come up with a watershed approach.”

“We’ve been focusing on quantifying the issue,” he said. “The next step is solving it.”

Edwards introduced a number of options that have been examined by engineers. From community drainfield systems, to creating snow out of the wastewater, to building more lagoons and increasing irrigation areas, to surface discharge – essentially, treating the wastewater and directing it into the Gallatin River.

“There’s negative imagery when you say ‘discharge it into the Gallatin (River)’,” DuCuennois said. “But the technology in the last 10 years has made it so the wastewater will be cleaner than what the water in the river is currently. It would benefit the river with instream flows.”

Planning board member John Lounsbury asked if the planning process has included reaching out to other communities in similar situations, like Aspen or resort communities around Salt Lake City.

“They dump it into the river next to them,” DuCuennois said. “But that sounds negative. Most (places) do that, but some also create snow with the wastewater.”

Tussing asked if the group is looking at a single solution, or a combination of the ideas they brought up.

“No one is saying it should be one, sole answer,” Edwards said. “We have a lot of different pieces.”


The housing question

Kitty Clemmons from the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce spoke to the group about workforce housing – a huge issue in the area.

“It is an issue important to (chamber members),” she said. “They have struggles attracting talent, staffing up and providing good customer service.”

The chamber hired a group of economists who created a study that quantified the need for workforce housing – Clemmons said the study found that approximately 83 percent of Big Sky’s workforce has to commute each day.

“That’s bad for many reasons,” she said. “Some of the payroll earned in this community leaks out of the area and doesn’t help the businesses here. Our roads are overused, especially the canyon because most people live in the Bozeman area. A lot of the brainpower we have in our community leaves everyday.”

Clemmons said creating housing for people who want to live in Big Sky year round is a critical issue and one that is difficult to solve because the cost of land and the cost of building are both expensive.

Currently, eight different landowners in Big Sky have given the chamber parcels of land to study – once one is determined as the best place for workforce housing, that site will serve as a demonstration project that could be replicated in other areas in Big Sky.

“Right now we’re looking at October for having something,” Clemmons said. “We hope to build something that includes owned homes, as well as rented.”

In the next 15 – 20 years, Clemmons said the area will need around 600 units, which is a big goal.

“We’re hoping that in the next 10 years, we can see 120 units that provide someone the opportunity to live here year round and contribute to our community,” she said. “We believe we have a population of young, educated people who want to live here year round and who would help out our community. One good example is teachers. We have a high turnover of teachers because they can’t find suitable housing and they move away.”

John Fountain, planning board president, is the only member of the board who lives in Big Sky.

“I’m the only one from the top of the mountain here on the board,” he said. “For our other members, we’re hitting these problems first here, but I think it’s going to happen down (in Madison County). Almost every one of these problems, like housing and wastewater, will hit Ennis and the other communities down there.”

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