Junkyard dodge 

One man's treasure is a neighbor's eyesore

From one side of the house the Plants view the Mission Mountains, and from the other side they overlook 25 acres of used cars. Duane Plant stands at the sliding glass door facing west, away from the mountains, counting: 118 cars, just that he can see. He believes they’re junk cars, and he believes the vehicles, some missing tires and windshields, should be surrounded by a fence so that his family doesn’t have to tolerate the eyesore. He, his wife, and other neighbors with a direct line of sight to the business, Timberlane Auto, have been filing their concerns with the county since 1997, they say.

“We want [Timberlane owner Neal Talsma] to clean up his act,” says Jennifer Plant. “We want him to shield. We want him to do what he promised to do 10 years ago.”

The used-car and auto-wrecking business moved to the site in 1992, despite vocal opposition from neighbors and Ronan City Council. The Talsmas promised to deliver prosperity to the neighborhood, and they promised a fence, according to nearby residents and a 1992 news report. Instead, nearby Timberlane Ave. neighbors have seen their property values dip and the number of cars outside an interior berm explode. They’ve seen oil slicks traveling down a small riparian area on the property line. In addition to annual complaints to the county, this year they’ve started filing complaints with the state. They haven’t gotten far, they say.

The state Department of Environmental Quality’s Darrell Stankey re-licensed the used-car and junk vehicle business when it expanded. The definition of a junk vehicle, he says, is specific—it must be completely inoperable, for instance. And the catch, he says, is that a vehicle that looks like junk to one person may be operable, in which case the law can’t require fencing.

“Appearances,” he says, “can be deceiving.”

“Case in point,” he says: “demolition derby cars.” A demo-derby car looks like a junk vehicle, but if it starts up and moves under its own power—“The law doesn’t say that it has to be driven on highways”—it isn’t considered junk, says Stankey.

His department hasn’t inspected Timberlane since 1992 primarily because of limited resources, he says. He and one other staff person issue licenses and inspect properties for the entire state. The DEQ doesn’t regularly perform follow-up inspection visits.

The county, however, does inspect the property annually. The most recent report from November 2003 states that owner Neal Talsma is not shielding the vehicles from public view—a county violation coded as “minor.”

“As for his lot on Timberlane,” reads the report, “I really got after him for having JUNK vehicles on the lot that he claims run! He finally agreed that about 30 of the cars don’t run and he’ll remove them behind the fence…I still question the others and should have him start all of them. I STRONGLY encouraged him to fence the front portion of his yard. He said they had been talking about it for some time and it’s just a matter of money and time.”

Susan Brueggeman directs Lake County’s Environmental Health Department. The county has not yet performed a follow-up visit this year, but plans to do so, she says. She realizes the controversial nature of the business. However, she is tied to state law, and limited by the fact that there is no zoning in the area, which is “typical for Lake County,” she says.

“It’s not good for the neighborhood,” she says of the cars parked outside the berm. “We can all understand that.” But her staff can’t sit outside Talsma’s property and force him to start up every car that he moves onto the lot, she says.

The Talsmas weren’t inclined to grant an interview. During a brief conversation, Charla Talsma, who operates the business with her husband, said that Timberlane, in buying and selling cars, does bring prosperity to the area as promised, but it isn’t anybody’s business how many cars they sell. She believes the complaints are a matter of personal vendetta, she said, and then she hung up.

The Plants placed their house on the market two months ago. They had long-term plans to move to their lakeside property in Polson. They’re asking $168,000 for their cedar-sided and stone house, says Jennifer Plant, but she knows they won’t get it. They’ve had many potential buyers tell them the only factor that prevents them from making an offer on the house is the view.

One year after the business moved in, says nearby resident Rhonda Emerson, she had her property assessed by the tax assessor. Its value had dropped $45,000, she says, and the tax assessor’s report attributes the drop to the eyesore across the street. Her real estate, she says, was her retirement.

Kathy Jaramillo lives just across the street, and she isn’t critical of the owners, who, she believes, are legitimate business people. “He’s a guy trying to make a living,” says Jaramillo, of Neal Talsma. But she doesn’t believe he understands the impact his business has on the neighborhood.

Neighbors are hoping for a visit from DEQ soon.

Emerson remembers that Timberlane Auto agreed to shield the neighbors from the view. “They promised all these trees would surround it,” says Emerson. “I could see how it could work.” But so far, there’s been no follow-through.

Jaramillo recently planted trees on her own property—“Stuff that grows real fast and gets really bushy,” she says.

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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