High water or hell 

Ravalli County riverfront property owner Tom Robak has extra cause for concern during this spring’s heavy runoff. Even if Robak’s home doesn’t flood—and flooding is something officials are calling a great probability—Ravalli County authorities say they will still pursue “very, very significant concerns” that the Robak residence is in the path of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River.

According to the county, the house, still under construction, was sited not just on the floodplain, where river flood waters back up, but also in a floodway—an overflow channel during high flows.

Located south of Conner, the house was also constructed on fill material, officials allege. “Fill may never be placed nor houses be constructed in the regulatory floodway,” according to a letter from Ravalli County Deputy Attorney Alex Beal to Dustin Chouinard, Robak’s attorney. “Surveys… show at least part of the Robak’s house to be in the floodway,” the letter states. “Additionally, significant quantities of fill appear to be in both the floodway and the floodplain.”

The construction is potentially illegal and hazardous to downstream neighbors, states Laura Hendrix, Ravalli County’s Floodplain Administrator, in an April 3 letter. A floodplain boundary is marked by the “100-year base flood elevation,” Hendrix writes, and when Robak failed to note in planning documents where his property’s elevation had been artificially raised, he violated county floodplain regulations. “Without this information, the residence, fill material and any other improvements may be required to be removed,” the letter says.

Robak did not reply to phone and e-mail requests for comment. But a group he co-founded, the Big Sky Coalition, vigorously opposed a county proposal calling for more stringent streamside setback regulations last fall. With half-page ads in the Ravalli Republic, the group argued that, “Your county commissioners want to decide your PROPERTY RIGHTS,” thus “devaluing” properties and preventing people “from rebuilding after a catastrophic loss.”

At press time, the National Weather Service indicated the river water at the Darby monitoring station downstream from the Robak home was at 7.97 feet, six inches above flood stage. “There is the possibility the home could wash down stream and destroy other property,” says Beal. “This is a significant concern for everyone.”

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