The bulk of last Thursday’s Stevensville Town Council meeting was taken up with a slide presentation by a consultant for the developers of the proposed Burnt Fork Estates subdivision. The presentation, by Andy Mefford with PCI, was the developers’ response to many of the concerns raised at the public hearings that have been held so far. Although the agenda item was listed as “Discussion/Decision: approval, approval with conditions, or denial of preliminary plat for the major subdivision known as Burnt Fork Estates,” citizens who attended the council meeting expecting to comment on the subdivision went home disappointed, as they were not allowed to speak on that topic.
Before the presentation, council member Jaime Devlin said she would like to see the developers host an open meeting where members of the public could ask questions and receive answers to their concerns. She said the process hasn’t been working in a way that provides answers. She said there are too many questions that remain unanswered. “This is too big of a project,” said Devlin. “In my opinion at this time it’s not a viable proposal that you have proposed to us. I would like to see the developers do their due diligence. At the end of the day, we have to be able to look at our community members and say this project is going to be okay. I don’t feel like I can do that at this time. So, leading into trying to make a decision in the real near future is not something I’m willing to do.”
“I think we heard a week ago tonight pretty much 30 to 1 that people don’t wish to see a C2 [commercial] section out there…” said council member Dempsey Vick. “People who bought in Creekside were told that any development going in would be very similar to what they have now. They’re getting something completely different.” Vick also wondered who would pay the bill for all the necessary upgrades. He also said before making a decision he would like to hear directly from DNRC and DEQ regarding the Town’s water rights situation, something Mayor Brandon Dewey said probably wouldn’t happen.
Council member Patrick Shourd also said he thought more meetings were needed to help the public get the answers they need. He also mentioned traffic and stormwater as particular concerns of his.
Council member Paul Ludington appeared to favor moving forward with the project, saying that “there are still a lot of hoops that have to be jumped through before the developers can turn a shovel or sell a lot.” He said the process has been going on for over a year already. “We’re not really trying to put the cart before the horse here. We’re just trying to get the process started… We can decide who’s going to pay for what as those issues are resolved…”
Mefford offered a comparison between Creekside Meadows Phases 3-5 (which were never built) and the proposed Burnt Fork Estates. Creekside was slated for 127 single-family lots and 28 multi-family units on two lots for a total of 155 units on 129 lots on 57.68 acres with overall density of 2.7 units per acre. Burnt Fork Estates proposes 78 single-family lots, 131 multi-family units on 43 lots, and 16 commercial lots for a total of 225 units on 137 lots on 57.68 acres with overall density of 3.9 units per acre.
Mefford said that the maximum possible units will not necessarily be built out that way; density could turn out to be less.
Regarding the concern that the Town does not currently have water rights for the proposed subdivision, Mefford’s slide stated, “Many municipalities face similar situations whereas their water rights don’t align entirely with their places of use, points of diversion, yields and volumes prescribed in their legal water rights. The Town is actively working on bringing itself into compliance with respect to water rights. The water rights issue can be worked on concurrently with a subdivision and sanitation application. The developers have agreed to donate all their surface water rights to the Town, as the project is platted out to assist in water rights mitigation present and future. The Town’s water right attorney has expressed confidently the Town has sufficient water rights to complete the water rights place of use application without any water rights from BFE.”
Mefford went through the issues that have been brought up through previous public comments and responded to each of those. (The full presentation can be found on the Town’s website at www.townofstevensville.com under Community Development/Projects and Proposals.)
In summary, Mefford presented the following: “The property is already annexed and zoned. The property had a very similar previous entitlement. There is existing infrastructure in place, and which anticipated the lands to be developed. The project complies with the growth policy. The project complies with Town Development Code, Subdivision Regulations, No Variances are proposed. The project is in alignment with existing zoning, or approved zoning if re-zone to C-2 were approved. Traffic Impact Studies have been conducted showing minimal impacts to the adjacent roadway network. Water and Sewer is anticipated to be provided by the Town, of course this will only occur once capacities and designs are verified by professional engineers and the required regulatory reviews are completed and found to be satisfactory. Storm water runoff will be treated and released at pre-development rates in an approved manner and locations. High ground water concerns will be mitigated by notifications to future homeowners, through elevated slab on grade construction, permitting NO basements or crawlspaces, and utility trench plugs for underground work. The developer is in agreement with the staff report and conditional recommendation of approval by the planning board and looks forward to starting this appropriate and greatly needed addition to Stevensville in 2021.”
Mefford said that the developers have been working on this project for over a year. “We want the opportunity for everyone to get their answers. But there is a regulatory process that’s running. The town owes the developer some due diligence on that in following through with what’s on the table. We are well past that deadline.” He said they were granted an extension, but that extension is “extremely expired.” He said the staff report was completed in August, then some additional information was submitted and the report was updated. “For months we tried to get a planning board meeting. Then the board wanted more public participation. Then the two public hearings. At some point, we need to get a decision.”
“There were a couple moments where the back of my neck got pretty hot,” said Devlin after the presentation. “The people you’re speaking of are my neighbors, my neighborhood. I visit their businesses, I work alongside them. Creekside was approved for five phases. We understand that that was expired… But that was accepted in the form that it was. Now we have a new developer coming in that isn’t following the same pattern that Creekside was. What you’re proposing is almost double.”
“When we are speaking about this community that obviously cherishes and loves this community, that are so passionate that they are willing to fight for this, we have to be really mindful of how they are perceiving this,” said Devlin. “I understand your frustration, but we have to be mindful of the other side. Yes, you are entitled to an answer. You need a decision, but we need answers. Let’s give our community members the opportunity to ask those questions. They are deserving of that.”
“I think there are a lot of questions,” said Ludington. “But this is not a house by the end of this year. This is a house by maybe the end of next year, if they can get the permits that are required. Is the town’s water problem going to go away? No, we’re always going to have that. But the growth policy says you don’t try to divide the pie smaller. You make the pie bigger. What we’re doing with Burnt Fork Estates is making the pie bigger… so that we have more people using our utilities… We are on the cutting edge of doing what is necessary to make sure that the town has what it needs to exist… That was the plan back in 2000 when we annexed this property. We need more people in this town in order to be able to do what we need to do to make sure that we can provide quality water and wastewater treatment. We can’t stay static. It will just cost us too much. We have to be able to move forward… With the help of somebody who is developing additional property in this town we will get that.”
Vick pushed for giving the public another chance to speak at a public hearing, especially after hearing the new information presented by Mefford. Devlin said she still wanted the developers to host a question and answer session. Although Mefford was reluctant, he did agree to hold a meeting to answer direct questions from the public. The meeting will be advertised in the Bitterroot Star.
“I really appreciate that,” said Devlin. “I think it’s really important.”
The council voted to table any decision on Burnt Fork Estates until at least a question and answer session and another public hearing are held.
In other business, the council:
• approved the mayor’s appointment of Elizabeth Hyde as volunteer firefighter;
• approved disposing of surplus phone system and electronics;
• approved a Liquor License Ownership Transfer from Bradley Paulson to TKO Walker LLP, 209 Main Street (High Country);
• approved Resolution No. 486, reinstating funding for the water/sewer bill assistance program.