When the Ravalli County Commissioners approved the Watson Homes subdivision, a five-lot minor subdivision north of Stevensville, their answer to local and adjacent property owners who claimed they would be setting a bad precedent in the neighborhood of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge if they approved it, was sort of a ‘we told you so.’
Back in 2015, Bitterrooters for Planning was successful in its lawsuit against the board of commissioners over its approval of the 639-home Legacy Ranch subdivision located immediately across the Eastside Highway from the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. The Legacy Ranch property was already primarily subdivided into undeveloped 10-acre orchard tracts called Sunnyside Orchards, several of which tracts were sold since the subdivision approval was revoked by the District Court. The Watson Home subdivision is one of those 10-acre tracts.
The commissioners did receive a couple of letters and comments in protest of the proposal, mostly from adjoining or neighboring property owners who also purchased 10-acrre tracts.
Neighboring property owner Janet Smallwood stated, “I believe you are aware that many people protested the original subdivision of hundreds of lots and that it was deemed unfeasible by a Montana Court. I partly based my decision to buy and build here on that court’s decision. Many people who also have lots here bought the lots and plan on building their dream homes and using the land for their families and animals.
“If you grant the proposal from Watson Homes to divide up their lot into 5 lots, a precedent would then be in place for everyone else to try to divide their lots and then, potentially, there would be hundreds of houses in this subdivision resulting in a situation that was dismissed earlier….. It is vital that we consider the ramifications of such an important decision. It is not just about someone making money and building houses. It is about resources, ecological preservation and rational planning for the future of this valley,” stated Smallwood. She said it would have unacceptable impacts on the wildlife fefuge, potentially impact wells in the area and lead to urban sprawl.
Another property owner, Patricia Steinbruecker, said she was “disheartened” when the Legacy Ranch attempted a multi-unit subdivision adjacent to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Relief promptly ensued, she said, when District Judge Haynes overturned the subdivision, requiring a “hard look” at the impact on public health and safety and the environmental impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat.
“With this ruling and as a new owner (pursuing my dream) of one of the original ten acre Sunnyside Orchard tracts, I feel empowered and compelled to speak-up for our obligation to ensure we, as a collaborative group, truly embrace what makes the Bitterroot Valley ‘The Last Best Place’.” Steinbruecker also thought the approval would “set a precedence, encouraging neighboring land owners to do the same. Phasing in one acre lots would create a similar density as previously requested, by the Mortons, without adequately addressing environmental and biological impacts. Which totally disregards the previous District Court decision.” County Planning Department head Terry Nelson stated that county rules don’t take into account the cumulative effects of multiple subdivisions in any given area.
Commission Chair Jeff Burrows disagreed about the notion that a precedent was being set by the current decision.
“When we went through Legacy Ranch,” said Burrows, “we recognized that if that planned-out subdivision didn’t go through with its community water system and waste water treatment system that the area would fill up with homes on individual wells and septics. Now those who opposed that subdivision are getting what they get, 10-acre lots that can be subdivided and every one will have an individual well and septic punched into them. I think it’s unfortunate, but it is what it is.” He said there was a good plan for developing the property but now it was going to be done in little clusters instead.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that there were a lot of components to the District Court decision that the commissioners considered appealing, “but we would never have an appeal heard because of the phasing component that was used…” He said it was clearly unlawful. He said, “With that component involved we couldn’t appeal the other portions of the decision that we felt compelled to do.” He said that the commissioners’ attorney could speak to that, but the attorney declined, saying, “Actually I can’t speak to that. I don’t know what the rationale was that they couldn’t appeal the whole decision.”
Commissioner Chris Hoffman said that he wasn’t on the commission during that time but since being elected he has dealt with some road issues in the area. One of the disputes is currently in federal court. Hoffman said that it would probably not be a problem if the planned development had gone through. He called it a ‘catch-22’ and said, “I don’t see anything disallowing what’s happening now.”
John Kellogg of Professional Consultants Inc. spoke for the Watsons, saying, “It’s interesting. The same worthy goals that were expressed in some of those letters are what we found the Watsons are interested in promoting here.” He said they were extremely interested in developing in a way that was amenable to being across from the Refuge. He said they planned an attractive entrance using a common area as a buffer along the Eastside Highway. Fencing, he said, would be wildlife-friendly.
According to Kellogg, the map used to designate species of concern was based on actual sightings. He said those sightings were made on the wildlife refuge. However, some of the affected areas extend over a circle five miles big and reach the proposed development land. Upon examination of the habitat associated with each species of concern, he said, it was determined that the land did not contain any preferred habitat for any of the species listed.
Kellogg said the proposed septic drain fields were approved by DEQ and meet the legal standards for protecting the ground water in the area.
After reviewing the application based on the state’s criteria and its own regulations, the Commissioners approved the subdivision unanimously.