Alfalfa farmer-developer Carl Saunders says he’s all for affordable housing. And while you ponder that, he’ll tell you another thing: Wastewater from the 85-lot subdivision he plans to build on his 113-acre farm will boost the productivity of his crop.
The Missoula County subdivision, dubbed Bentgrass Meadows, will potentially plant 83 manufactured homes on 75 acres of prime agricultural land some four miles northwest of Missoula International Airport. To handle wastes from the development, Saunders figures he’ll install an on-site sewage system with treatment ponds, and use the gray water to irrigate his remaining alfalfa fields.
At a March 19 public hearing of the Missoula County Commissioners, the novelty of the proposal clashed with hesitation over the clustered development it would create.
“There’s something about it,” Commissioner Bill Carey said, skeptically.
Nevertheless, by a vote of 2-1, the county board gave Bentgrass Meadows the green light. Commissioner Jean Curtiss expressed reservation about creating a precedent for high-density growth on prime farmland so far from the city center, but ultimately cast the deciding vote. Carey dissented.
Other than a handful of neighbors who attended the hearing, the county planning office provided the main opposition to Saunders’ proposal. Staffers had originally counter-proposed a 12-lot subdivision, but that idea had little traction after the developer complained that such a small project wouldn’t even cover costs. Subsequent recommendations added several sidewalks and trail easements for pedestrian traffic.
Mayor John Engen’s traveling slide show on affordable housing immediately preceded the public hearing. Saunders used it to attack the staff recommendations.
“We just saw a slideshow on affordable housing and you require us to build a sidewalk that nobody will use?” he railed.
Commissioners added the trails and sidewalks nonetheless, but that didn’t satisfy the neighbors concerned about the stress Bentgrass Meadows will place on existing roads and services. One such critic, Gary Carlson, also wonders what kind of smell the ponds will put off and whether the still wastewater will boost mosquito swarms and aid the spread of West Nile virus.
“This is not normal for Missoula,” Carlson argues. “It’s basically a huge science experiment.”