Blanchard Creek property agreements top discussion

Greenough-Potomac Fire Board

POTOMAC – At their March 1 meeting, the Greenough-Potomac Fire Board and Developer John Richards discussed their needs and concerns regarding building a fourth fire station on the Fire Department’s property on Blanchard Creek. Several questions were identified that Richards and the Board hope to address at the Board’s April meeting.

The Greenough-Potomac Board of Trustees and Richards signed the original agreement Sept. 4, 2007. The agreement stated that the Department would exchange their property on Sperry Grade for at least an acre and a half lot within the Clearwater Meadows Ranch subdivision, off Highway 200 on Blanchard Creek. In 2008 they signed a Warranty Deed stating that the property could only be used to construct a fire department facility or related structure.

In February 2021, Richards reached out to the Board to find out their plans for the Blanchard Creek property. Since this was a new board and a new fire chief, they needed to research the history of the agreements.

At their April 2021 meeting, the Board decided they needed to understand what the agreements said and what the Department had the ability to do. They decided not to do any improvements to the property at that time.

The Board discussed the deed restriction at their November 2021 meeting. Chair Scott Gordon reported that it was the opinion of the Missoula County attorney that they could petition the courts to remove the deed restriction. If the restriction was removed, then the Department could use the property however they wished.

After receiving a letter from Richards in December, the board invited him to the March meeting to discuss expectations around the agreements and the County Attorney’s opinion.

Gordon said the biggest challenge for the board is to justify the need to build a new firehouse. They currently have the main Fire Hall on Potomac Road, Station 2 at Roundup, four miles from Blanchard Creek, and a station at Ninemile Prairie where they have an agreement with The Resort at Paws Up to use that building for $1/ year.

Gordon added they are also a fee service area that does not have the ability to run a mill levy to pay for a new structure. Their current annual fee of $60 per residence and $100 per business in the protection area is what funds their operations. He estimated a new fire hall could start at $250,000 for just the shell.

“If we don’t need the facility there currently and we don’t have a means to pay for it, it makes it very difficult for us to move forward on doing anything with that piece of property,” Gordon said.

Gordon said the 2007 and 2008 agreements appear to provide conflicting information. The 2007 agreement indicates that the power, well and water tanks would be installed prior to transferring the properties. The 2008 agreement states this would be completed before the final plat is entered for the subdivision.

“The intent of the 2007 [agreement] was never to have all those things checked off before the property transferred,” Richards said. “I’m not here to force you guys to do anything right now. But the agreement, as far as I’m concerned, still stands. If we need to renegotiate that, I’m open to that.”

Gordon said the fiberglass tanks that need to be installed have been out in the sun for 14 years. However, without a well, power or a footprint for the building, Gordon does not know how they would justify putting those tanks in the ground.

Richards said the intent for the property from the board and chief in 2007 was to build a regional training facility that could be used by Ovando, Potomac and Seeley Lake departments.

Richards said back when the agreements were approved, the Board felt they could get grants to build the facility, however, a 10-year recession has affected a lot of things financially.

Chief Ryan Hall said the training facility and the grant funding went hand-in-hand but it was only an idea. Even if they were to lump Greenough-Potomac, Ovando and Seeley Lake Departments together and put in for a federal grant, they don’t have the call volume or the population protection to make it competitive against other departments like Missoula Rural, Frenchtown, Great Falls or Spokane. Also since 2007, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has built a training facility at their Clearwater Unit near Clearwater Junction.

“Let’s figure out what works, here we are years later – the world has changed and it may change drastically in the next couple years for us,” Richards said. “All it takes is one person moving in here with horsepower and you’ll see your grant. That is a fact of life.”

Richards said another reason the previous board was interested in the property was because it was within five miles of the houses up behind Salmon Lake in the Lost Horse area. Regardless of whether a station is built, Richards feels it would be an asset to the department to have tanks in the ground, power and water available year-round.

The board said that information is incorrect and that area behind Salmon Lake is in the Seeley Lake Fire District’s protection. Their protection area ends at mile marker 2 on Highway 83.

“That is a huge burden lifted from the department that I was under the impression was a big deal to them,” Richards said. “If that is not even in your service area that is a moot point.”

One of the reasons Richards was interested in the agreement was Missoula County told them that if there was a fire station there, they would not require sprinkler systems in the houses.

Board member Jack Mulcare said after speaking with Missoula County, they informed him they do not require sprinkler systems.

Fire Chief Ryan Hall pointed out that the original plan for the subdivision was for a much higher density of homes. Richards agreed and said his first proposal was for 119 lots. It is now for 20 lots.

Hall asked if the density had hit some threshold that triggered the County to require sprinklers. He also asked Richards consider sprinklers because it would buy the volunteer responders time, regardless if there was a station on the Blanchard Creek property or not.

Richards restated that if a fire station was installed on the property, the houses would not be required to install sprinkler systems. He said in the next few months he will have a better idea of the County’s requirements and the parameters for the subdivision. He told the board, the requirement for a fire station being built on that property is not attached to his subdivision proposal.

Gordon wants to reevaluate what the agreement is and what they realistically want versus need for the department now versus 2007-2008 so everyone is on the same page. “Building a facility there now I don’t see it happening,” Gordon said “That would put us at odds with you, and I don’t want to have that either. We want to make sure we are working towards the same goal on this.”

Missoula County Deputy County Attorney Dylan Jaicks said based on the age of the agreements and the changed circumstances, she does not believe the agreement is enforceable at this point

“From my perspective, giving advice to the fire area, the cost they are looking at, there is just no reason for them to move forward. I wouldn’t advise them to do that if they don’t have to and I don’t believe they have to.”

“As far as the agreement, that is the valid agreement that is in force today,” Richards said. “If the county thinks it is not in force, we are prepared to file litigation and move forward.”

Jaicks encouraged Richard to have his attorney reach out to her and have a conversation about why he believes the agreement is enforceable.

“If it takes the judge to tell you [that] you have to, then that is where we will go,” Richards said. “I’m here trying to solve your guys’ issues and my issues. I’m not here to fight with you but if you want the fight, I’ll be your fighter.”

The board discussed the tanks and their integrity. Richards said the Department inspected and approved the tanks in 2008. They were not installed because they did not know where they wanted to put them. The board agreed they would need to be inspected by an engineer before they would bury them.

Board Treasurer Jennifer Iverson said she was concerned because they do not have a long-term plan for the property. Without a long-range goal, any improvements on the property could sit idle for years making them obsolete. She feels the Department needs a clear understanding of what Missoula County requires from the Fire Department in reference to this subdivision and the Department’s anticipated needs.

“I don’t think it is prudent for us to make any decisions or investments until we have that long-term plan and we know what the timing of that long-term plan is,” Iverson said. “We have to take in account what the community, who is here today, needs and wants. We answer to them so we do need to be very thoughtful about this.”

Hall, specifically commenting as a taxpayer, asked Richards if he would be willing to purchase the property from the Department outright. Richards said he would consider that opportunity. The deed restriction would have to be removed to sell it. Since Richards put that restriction on, he felt that could be overcome.

Jaikes said they would need to talk through it but felt it could be done.

Due to all the unknowns, Gordon proposed that the Department write up the current and future needs they feel are important, find out what the County requires them to do and meet again to discuss how to move forward.

He asked Richards to come up with ideas about what the renegotiations should look like including the possibility of purchasing the property from the department and what he would offer. He asked Richards to have his attorney contact Jaicks about the validity of the agreement.

The Blanchard Creek Subdivision discussion will continue at the next meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 5 at Station 1 on Potomac Road.

 

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