Bitterroot Public Library Building Director Mark Wetherington told the Hamilton City Council members at their last Committee of the Whole meeting last week that, after hearing the Hamilton Fire Department might be moving out of its current location in the adjacent Fire Hall in a few years, they wondered about the possibility of expanding the existing lease on their current building to include to the old Fire Hall which sits on the same block as the Library. He said the library could use the space and that it would also keep the building in public ownership.
Wetherington said if the city was agreeable to considering it they would get an architect to survey the building and see if it is feasible and what the cost might be for the library to expand over there.
Councilor Jenny West asked if any consideration had been given to connecting the two buildings and Wetherington said it had been discussed. He said they thought of either directly connecting the buildings to make it one block-long building, or building a sky walk over the existing alley that separates the buildings. He said they would look at what would be most economical and do the best at preserving the historic values of the building.
“We will have to get into it first and see what we’ve got, but that was one thought,” said Wetherington.
Councilor West said she thought it was a neat idea and said, “I know you guys are bursting at the seams and need to get out of there and this could be a good fit.”
Council President Claire Kemp said she thought it was a good idea too, and liked the idea of the building staying in public hands.
The consensus was to schedule a walk-through for city and library staff. Wetherington said the Bitterroot Library Foundation, an independent non-profit that supports the library, has expressed an interest in paying for an architect to conduct a professional assessment of the feasibility and cost. He said before they asked for that money they would like some sort of formal approval from the city to consider the project before the library asks its supporting organization for the money.
Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf said that he could arrange a meeting and tour along with Fire Chief Brad Mohn and then consult city attorney Karen Mahar about drafting an interlocal agreement between the Library and the City with a lease amendment.
The proposed Skalkaho Bend Park Re-Vegetation proposal was on the committee’s agenda for the third time in a row to discuss public outreach about the proposal. This time it began with a letter of public comment in opposition to any immediate approval of the project and requesting a delay for more opportunity for public involvement. The letter, sent by Cathy Whirly, Melissa Hughes and Cheryl Waterworth, maintained that a $121,350 tax dollar funded project deserves scrutiny. It stated that the proposed willow plantings “will disrupt the very uses the park was created for.”
“This project needs further discussion about its need and the alternatives. There is no going back in time to include the public at an earlier stage but we can still consider whether a vegetative project on an accelerated timeline is the best solution for this erosion control, with meaningful public input and buy in on the project.”
Public Works Director Donny Ramer said that it was a park management decision project.
“If we were losing five feet a year in any of our other parks, the city would be doing something right now,” said Ramer. He said the Bitterroot Water Forum has been working on the project for a long time ago and then Covid and the park acquisition came along and delayed things.
He spoke to the comments that the proposal needs an environmental scientist to look at it. He said scientists and engineering firms have been involved on the project from the beginning as well as the Bitterroot Water Forum. He said the proposal had won a competitive grant from DEQ after review by a panel of experts. He said study results on the project were being mis-stated and quoted from the report, “Implementation of short term treatments is necessary if there is any interest.” He said possibly moving the ditch and excavating swales and planting willows and cottonwoods was recommended.
Ramer said the aim was to try and avoid having to do emergency installation of rip-rap when the river reaches that point. He called it “the most gentle way we can protect this park.” He said it would take five years to establish the root system and at five feet per year they had to get out ahead of it. He said that by acting sooner rather than later they could prevent ending up with something like River Park where the rip-rap runs right up against the walkway. He wondered what kind of public process would meet the requirements for public involvement. He said they have had two COW meetings already and they have engineering reports and plant biology reports and maps.
“Why not revegetate now instead of rip-rapping in five to 10 years,” said Ramer. He said he believes the project has to happen and asked how the process should proceed with the public outreach.
President Kemp said that work in the city couldn’t stop during the pandemic and that the further this project is delayed the more problems there will be.
According to Heather Barber of the Water Forum, with a projected timeline for beginning in March they needed to get some form of affirmation from the city to move forward with application for a 404 Permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. She said that permitting process can take anywhere from 80 to 120 days which would require making the application by the end of the month.
Councilor West said that from her experience on the river she does not want to see rip-rap. She said there is time to do a planting and it will be beautiful again in time. She said the view is important, but the park needs protection.
Councilor Robin Pruitt agreed and said she thought it was the best thing to do.
Councilor Rod Pogachar said he appreciated the concerns about the proposal and they should strive for consensus and work together on the proposal.
Ramer said it was not a finished design and they were still working on the access and viewshed issues. Many other options were considered in the process so far, according to Ramer, including a slew of on-the-river bank options. He said in the end they arrived at the best recommendation they could.
Barber said that they brought it to the council not asking for a vote and weren’t trying to rush anything. They said the city had received a lot of letters in support of the plan. She said all the information, including all relevant reports, was on the Bitterroot Water Forum website and facebook page and was available on the city’s website. Other outreach plans involved continuing education with signs at the park about river migration.
It was agreed to keep the issue in committee but to reach some decision by the end of the month so that, if approved, the application could be submitted in early December.