Missoula County’s plan to extend the city sewer system into an unincorporated residential area along Mullan Road passed another hurdle this week while residents organized to voice their opposition.
As the city spreads into adjacent areas, the Mullan Road Corridor Sewer Project has forced officials and residents to ask some fundamental questions about growth in the Missoula area. The county is now grappling with how to balance growth and infrastructure, and who should foot the bill.
Under the plan, the cost of building a “backbone” sewer line and then connecting individual homes, about $7.4 million, would be distributed among the county, city, and local landowners. The cost to landowners has been estimated at about $3,000 per acre owned.
Then there are additional expenses based on a property’s distance to the backbone and particular infrastructure needs.
“Most people feel that it’s just an inequity, the unfairness of the distribution of the fees,” says Diane Beck, a homeowner in the area who spoke at last week’s county commissioners meeting. At the meeting, the Board approved by a 2-1 vote a resolution of intent to create a Rural Special Improvement District. This would allow for the levy of new taxes to pay for the project. Residents now have until Dec. 17 to lodge a protest before a final decision is made.
“You are forcing people to sell their homes and move to other areas,” Beck told the commissioners. Small ranchers with no plans to create subdivisions would be hardest hit, she said, making the project “not fair to anyone but the development community and large landowners.”
Local landowner Mike Flynn, who claims to represent about 90 percent of the residents in the area, showed up at the meeting to tell the commissioners that the sewer extension’s opponents have hired legal counsel and plan to take action.
Commissioners Bill Carey and Jean Curtiss both support the project. They cite the environmental benefits of sewer lines over septic tanks, and the importance of getting a solid infrastructure laid down in an area where growth is imminent.
As for the cost, Curtiss said that going ahead with the project this year does not mean the county will stop looking for federal money to relieve residents’ tax burden. The new taxes will not start until late 2003, Curtiss says, “so they have two years and we have two years to help figure out ways to help folks for whom the cost is going to be exorbitant.”
Commissioner Barbara Evans believes the project should be put on hold for a year to try to secure federal funds first. Once landowners are already paying, she says, Congress will provide no funding. “That’s too much money to put on people,” she says.