Twin Bridges property owners try to thwart storm water project
11th hour attempt to slow or stymie project fails
TWIN BRIDGES – A number of property owners came to the Twin Bridges town council meeting on Tuesday, March 12, to express their displeasure with plans to move ahead with part of a $600,000 storm water, sidewalk, curb and gutter project, scheduled to begin this summer.
The agenda said the council would consider final approval of the 6th Avenue project, which later in the meeting was explained as voting solely the sidewalk element of the overall storm water, sidewalk, curb and gutter project.
However, the property owners hoped to stymie the entire effort, objecting to the project, wondering why council was pursuing this instead of other efforts they deemed more important to the community.
Great West Engineering’s Jeremiah Theys, PE, the architect of the project, brought two final 6th Avenue alternative plans to the meeting. One plan offered depressed curb and gutters along the street that followed the property lines along the north side of the street to tie into a new sidewalk with ADA-worthy approaches. The other offered parallel on-street parking with curb and gutters all around.
The council could choose one of these plans, along with recommendations to amend it, when they voted.
However, Theys reminded them, it was important to finalize the plans so that they could meet deadlines with the Montana Department of Transportation to present 90 percent complete plans by March 20.
Theys said the need for the overall storm water management project was great. He pointed to how Twin Bridges in 2017 ranked among the top places in the state in qualifications for grants to alleviate storm water problems.
He also said that the council, given this information, elected to do both the storm water management along with curbs, sidewalks and guttering since the storm water efforts would involve construction in the same area.
In January, council decided that the first priority was 6th Avenue, at a cost of about $200,000, a third of the $600,000 price tag. The overall storm water project was estimated to be $1.2 million as initially proposed, but council decided to scale things back to focus on what was affordable and highest-priority, which resulted in the $600,000 price tag.
The larger part of the storm water management effort was installing 15 infiltration systems, cisterns to catch and hold storm water, on Madison St. and its intersections. Each of these cisterns would cost about $10,000 - $15,000.
Theys and Bob Murdo, an attorney from the Helena firm of Jackson, Murdo & Grant, a bond council, who would arrange some of the financing for the project, explained how this would done.
In January, the council formally approved the creation of a Special Improvement District (SID), in order to move ahead with the project. Prior to this, the town sent out 259 letters to the property owners impacted by the SID, advising them of what the intended project would entail. Only 14 property owners expressed opinions against the project. The town council interpreted this as 95 percent of those affected by the special district either approving of the project or at least understanding why it was being done, with 5 percent objecting.
Murdo pointed out that SIDs are created to benefit everyone in that district. With the SID, the town could receive money to pay for the project from grants from the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and the revolving fund, money that eventually came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But the town would have to match this, borrowing from the DNRC at 2.5 percent across 20 years, a rate that no bank could beat.
“I don’t think there is a better way to reduce the costs of this,” Murdo said.
He also noted that if more than 50 percent of the people in the SID didn’t want the project, it couldn’t be attempted for another six months.
Theys explained that 86.5 percent of the $600,000 project would be funded by grants the town expected to receive.
The remaining 13.42 percent, about $40,000 worth, was split 50/50 between the town and Twin Bridges school district.
Bottom line, the town was responsible for about 6.5 percent of the total cost of the project, and this would cost property owners a total of $155 per parcel, to be paid at the rate of $23.10 per year across the next 20 years. Parcels could be a single lot or multiple lots, depending on how the county had prepared the geocodes on the deeds.
Property owner issues
The loss of parking spaces on 6th Avenue was the first issue raised by property owners.
Property owners Patty and Jeff Walker had seen the plans and anticipated losing a number of parking spaces in front of their business and around a pump house. Patty accused the council of having “something against us.”
“This project makes no sense,” another property owner told council. “The town is shrinking, people are shrinking, we don’t need it.”
Jeff Walker brought the results of a survey he and Patty conducted about the overall project to council as evidence of property owner disapproval.
The Walkers told council they’d sent out about 200 post cards to property owners the week before the meeting, asking them if they approved of the project. They received 50 responses to this mailing, with only two property owners approving of the project. This meant, the Walkers told the council, 96 percent of the residents of Twin Bridges disapproved of the project.
Jeff Walker said that in his restaurant over the last 20-40 years, he has never heard anyone express a desire for more storm drains.
“Can’t you wait until more cards come back,” he said, referencing the survey.
Jeff Walker then asked council why they didn’t follow majority rule, “the American way, the Montana way” of doing things given this information.
Others also complained about the lack of communication from council on the plans, saying they’d never received the letters sent by council and didn’t know or understand the plans.
Patty Walker wondered if since the school and the town were part of this project, taxpayers would be “double assessed” by both school and town to pay for it.
Two other property owners wondered if there were not any chance the council could “back things up” and giving people more time to voice their concerns about the project.
The council’s response to the property owner complaints was simple:
For the last two years, the council has been considering and discussing this project, appropriately advertising public hearings and following the legal procedures involved in getting it done.
Surveys and other information sent out by council told them that residents wanted better storm water management in the community, that it was a priority.
Councilman Matt Greemore also explained how better storm water management had been a third-ranked town priority listed by residents as something they wanted to accomplish since 2007. He said the town council checked updates to the lagoon, the water system and other projects before tackling this one and disputed the Walkers’ 96 percent figure.
Councilmen Nolan Frandsen spoke about this personal situation, to quell rumors that he’d combined three lots he owned into one to avoid the $155 fees. This was not so, he said. He would be hit with the $155 fee for the three lots, and combined them, specifically to avoid any suggestion of impropriety, after the SID was created, not before.
Greemore, Frandsen and Councilman Joe Willauer asked for more parking spaces to be added in order to accommodate businesses. There was concern about getting too close to a pumphouse where an 850-volt electric service might entice kids to danger, while the town needed to access the pumphouse.
While Jeff Walker agreed that council’s incorporations of some of the property owners’ concerns was acceptable, he still pointed to the survey he and Patty had done and said the council had still not followed majority rule.
Patty Walker thanked council for being willing to add parking space to their plans.
On a motion by Willauer and Scott Holbrook to provide more parking, council unanimously approved the sidewalk plan for Main Street and 6th Avenue.
Other property owners left the meeting grumbling, while Mayor Tom Hyndman thanked people for coming.
In other business, council
• Approved the transfer of gas tax funds, about $4,000, to help pay for street repairs.
• Approved a final budget amendment moving monies around in order to cover the SID payments and the Madison County Fairgrounds water line payments.
• Tabled a motion to allow Spiffy-Biffy portable toilets to dump 50 to 100 gallons of waste per day into the town’s sewer system during emergencies, like the cold weather that impacted the county early in March and during February. Gary and Heather Caprara, Spiffy-Biffy owners, told council they currently had a field application permit they might use, but in the event this was inaccessible, they were asking to use the town sewer for emergency purposes. Council may reconsider this during April.
• Was asked by town attorney Lori Harshbarger to figure out why there was a disconnect between council and so many citizens, property owners, the library board and others. She also admonished council to clean up things like interlocal agreements, credit cards, information sharing, and other outstanding items.