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By Nathan Bourne
Pathfinder 

Progress Made but No Solution to Snow Plowing in Dogtown

 


SEELEY LAKE - The Seeley Lake Community Council (SLCC) was updated on the progress made in the last year toward resolving the issue that ended county road maintenance for Dogtown residents. The council also heard from the transportation commissioner who represents the area and discussed the council’s candidate forum at its Aug. 8 meeting.

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) Clearwater Unit Manager Kristen Baker-Dickinson gave the update on the snowplowing issue.

The issue was brought to light in the summer of 2015 when the county sent letters to Dogtown residents who access their properties via Grizzly Drive and Cub Lane informing them that the county would no longer perform maintenance. The county stated that they could not use county road funds because there are not legal easements for the roads.

The two roads cross state land and provide access for state lease lots. The DNRC, who manages the land, cannot give the easements away because it is bound by law to get fair market value for all encumbrances upon the land including road easements.

This issue is not isolated to these two roads but affects roads all over Montana and other states. Missoula County has also sent out letters to residents on Snowmass Drive this summer terminating county maintenance for these same reasons.

Baker-Dickinson explained that in the last year the DNRC has significantly lowered the estimated cost for the easements. The cost was estimated between $40,000 and $50,000 per acre based on Department of Revenue appraisals in the area. The new estimate is for $800 per acre making the total cost of the required easement around $5,300 instead of the first estimate of around $300,000.

“I think that’s a step in the right direction for us talking about affordability and making this process move forward,” said Baker-Dickinson.

Curtiss said that the county hasn’t discussed the new estimate. She reminded everyone that the county has never purchased a road easement from the DRNC in part due to the “huge number” the DNRC has previously estimated.

Another issue that was identified last year that persists is the county will not accept the roads back until they are brought up to county specifications.

Curtiss explained that even though the roads were previously accepted for maintenance, it was not legal when it was done in 1979-80; therefore, the certificates of acceptance are null and void.

It is estimated that bringing the roads up to standard would cost $20,000 to $30,000. The county and DNRC have been meeting to try and find a solution to this part of the issue.

A member of the public asked if the roads would have to meet all the standards to which Curtiss said the county could consider some variances. She said the biggest problem is the drainage because water ruins roads.

Baker-Dickinson also brought up that there is an easement issue on Grizzly Drive where it crosses private property between the state land and Riverview Drive. The DNRC has been meeting with the owner Kevin Wetherell to negotiate a price.

Baker-Dickingson said without an easement across this property, none of the other issues could be resolved. She added that the two parties’ numbers weren’t very close.

Wetherell responded to the Pathfinder’s request for comment with excerpts from his response to a DNRC offer to purchase the easement for $4,000 ($75 per lot receiving legal access).

“All I asked for is that the State purchases the easement to include the same terms as the State would require as if I were purchasing an easement from the State.”

Wetherell explained that the State puts all sorts of stipulations in their easements that he didn’t feel were being addressed with their offer to him.

In an email to the Pathfinder, Curtis said the county didn’t pursue an easement for the short section of road across Wetherell’s property when they secured the easements for Riverview Drive because it wasn’t asked for at the time.

Petitioners seeking access on Riverview had no reason to ask for the extra easement accessing Grizzly Drive. It would have complicated the process if all the parties didn’t agree as they did on Riverview’s easement.

Neither Curtiss nor Baker-Dickinson felt that the snow plowing issue would be resolved before the upcoming winter.

Last winter private donors, including the Seeley Lake Community Foundation (SLCF), put up $3,000 for snow plowing. The actual cost for the season came in at $2,357 and a refund was issued to the SLCF.

Curtiss said that the county could use funds out of the general fund instead of the road fund but she didn’t think it was fair to the rest of the county to pay for it that way. She went on to explain that the state lease lots only pay road tax for the value of their improvements, not the value of the land itself.

In other business, Montana Transportation Commissioner Daniel Belcourt was in attendance to answer questions about the role of the transportation commission in addressing speed limits in Seeley Lake.

Belcourt explained that when the Montana Department of Transportation sets speed limits federal laws and regulations bind them to base the speeds off speed studies. The studies look at how fast traffic currently travels and set the limit accordingly. The transportation commission has the authority to override those studies.

“I think listening to the community members who know the highway, who live here year round, there’s everything right about that,” said Belcourt.

Belcourt recommended that anyone interested should come and testify. The commission is scheduled to discuss the SLCC’s speed limit reduction request at its next meeting, Sept. 22 in Helena, Mont.

Lastly, Council Chair Klaus von Stutterheim updated the council on the candidate forums scheduled for this fall. There will be three separate forums, Sept, 19, Sept. 26 and Oct. 10, in order to give time for all the different races on.

Von Stutterheim has invited 29 candidates from 12 races and has gotten confirmations from 18 saying they would attend.

The next SLCC meeting is scheduled for Sept. 19, after the candidate forum at the Seeley Lake Community Hall.

 

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