Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

Residents work towards solution for Dogtown road maintenance and plowing

 

October 29, 2020



SEELEY LAKE – After more than five years maintaining their own road, residents in the Clearwater East Neighborhood including Grizzly Drive and Cub and Claw Lane in Dogtown are working towards a solution. At an informational meeting this past August with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, DNRC Right-of-way Specialists presented the process of forming a Road Users’ Association (RUA) that would provide a means to agree to, schedule and collectively pay for road maintenance on the existing neighborhood roads.

Since only half of the residents attended the meeting, further discussions are planned. Grizzly Drive resident Karen Linford said no one at the meeting spoke out against forming an RUA. She feels it may be a viable option to provide for the road maintenance needs and serve as a necessary step towards moving the neighborhood into the DNRC Cabin Site Purchase Program scheduled for 2021.

History of Clearwater East Neighborhood road maintenance

In a letter dated April 29, 2015 Missoula County Chief Public Works Officer Greg Robertson informed the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) that the county would no longer be maintaining Grizzly Drive and Cub Lane.

The county stated that it could not use road tax dollars because there are no legal road easements and they do not collect taxes for the roads since the land is owned by the State. Because the roads are on State Trust Land, the county would be required to purchase easements in order to keep maintaining them. Also, the roads are not properly built to county specifications.

Robinson indicated in the April letter that the county was willing to continue maintenance if the county was reimbursed the cost.

DNRC Clearwater Unit Manager Kristen Baker-Dickinson informed the leaseholders at a Sept. 2, 2015 meeting that it is within their leases that it is their responsibility to maintain the roads. DNRC cannot grant an easement to the county without being paid fair market value.

The Seeley Lake Community Council took up the issue at their September 2015 meeting trying to find a resolution between the County and the State. At their October meeting they reported that private donors, including the Seeley Lake Community Foundation, were willing to pay the County $3,000 for snow plowing for the 2015-2016 winter.

Since the county only plowed a couple of times, resident on Grizzly Drive Norm Bernstrauch decided he would keep the road open from his house to Riverview Drive. When his neighbors asked him to plow their road, he agreed.

The funding for the county to maintain the road only lasted one year. Bernstrauch volunteered to plow and he hired Kyle O’Brien to grade the road when needed.

“If they keep gas in my plow truck, Austin and I will keep the road open,” said Bernstrauch about collecting payment from his neighbors. “As far as our time goes, we use that road too. I don’t necessarily need to be paid for my time.”

In the summer of 2017, the DNRC acquired an easement across the private property where Grizzly Drive intersected with Riverview Drive. Grizzly Drive was relocated to the new easement and some of the “rather lake-like” sections of Grizzly Drive received some gravel. DNRC Clearwater Unit Manager Kristen Baker-Dickinson remained optimistic that an agreement could be reached and the county will resume road maintenance. However, nothing was settled and the homeowners continued to be on their own plowing snow.

In the spring of 2019, an easement for Grizzly Drive was purchased from a private landowner and the roadway moved to the new easement. Baker-Dickinson explained that the DNRC was trying to work with Missoula County to resume road maintenance but an agreement could not be reached. Grizzly Drive, Claw Lane and Cub Lane will have to continue to be maintained by the residents of that area.

Linford said neighbors pitch in as they can to pay for the plowing and road maintenance but it is not a requirement.

“Some people chip in and some people don’t,” said Linford.

Since Bernstrauch does not charge for his time, the money collected builds up allowing the residents to pay for larger projects. Bernstrauch said last spring they purchased a load of gravel to eliminate one of the big water holes. Once the road was graded, it fixed the problem.

Bernstrauch said, “There are a few more we need to do but we can only do a little bit at a time.”

Road Users’ Association discussion

The State lessees were invited to an informational meeting Aug. 20 held at Linford’s driveway. When Bernstrauch first heard of the meeting he was upset.

“I’ve heard so much about these HOAs and RUAs and a lot of times they bring in an outside entity, you know government, to start pedaling around,” said Bernstrauch. “I didn’t like it.”

At the meeting DNRC Road-of-way specialists Christie Hollenbeck and Carmen Evans provided information and explained the process of forming an RUA, as well as explained lease and sales road maintenance obligations and answered questions. If the Clearwater East neighborhood decides not to form an RUA, each lot, more than 40 in this neighborhood, will need to get an individual right of way easement grant approved by the state land board.

“The RUA approach is more efficient to process and spreads out fixed road maintenance costs to all lessee’s evenly,” wrote Mike Atwood, DNRC Real Estate Management Bureau chief, in an email.

After attending the meeting Bernstrauch shifted.

“It would open up a little more avenues as far as getting funding from everybody to keep the road open and in the spring we can get both Cub Lane and Grizzly bladed and holes patched and whatnot,” said Bernstrauch. “I think it could be beneficial to us.”

Linford said they liked it when the county maintained Grizzly Drive. She explained that the road easement would be given to the RUA. Then it would be one easement and the group could collectively make the best decision for the neighborhood.

“It is protecting the possibility of ever getting the County to take that over again. In the end it would be up to [the officers] in that Road Users’ Association,” said Linford who agreed to be the contact for DNRC and help facilitate further discussions. “Probably the bigger thing is the road maintenance. This gives us a chance to all get together and plow.”

Atwood said all residents on a state residential lease are responsible for their own road maintenance in accordance with their state residential lease contracts. The roads have been maintained through a private contractor paid by the lessees with just a few residents participating. This would spread the desired maintenance frequency and costs over all active leases.  

“Establishment of a RUA with regular scheduled maintenance performed would help position this neighborhood for roads to be taken over by the County eventually, especially after many purchase their lots and are assessed property taxes,” wrote Atwood.

What the RUA will look like is yet to be determined and will be established by the residents. The RUA, if formed, would elect officers that would manage the road maintenance, decide who performs the work, how often and level of maintenance. Atwood wrote the primary difference is all active leases contribute the same weighted share annually to pay for the fixed maintenance costs. Should someone not pay, they could be in default of their state lease.

“Road maintenance is no longer a voluntary contribution if you are using the roads, it would be a mandatory payment by each lessee using the roads like private subdivision road associations throughout Montana,” wrote Atwood.

“It doesn’t add up to a lot when you share it equally,” said Linford.

To form the RUA, the residents would first create the Articles of Incorporation and bylaws. Once that is approved by the DNRC, the RUA would be recorded with the Montana Secretary of State. While DNRC is facilitating the discussions, Linford reiterated that it will be the residents that decide how this will look and what will work best for them.

“We all live together and know each other so let’s work on this together,” said Linford. “We don’t want anyone to be upset or say they can’t afford this. We will look for a way to make it work so it is to everyone’s benefit. We are looking for a solution and we don’t want it to be top down. To me it is just neighbors trying to work something out between each other for everyone’s benefit.”

Linford will be reaching out to all of the residents within the possible RUA following a letter from the state. For more information Linford encourages people to contact her.

 

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