The burning question 

The Frenchtown Rural Fire District could soon become the first Missoula County firefighting agency to take an impact fee proposal before County Commissioners. The first, but, by all indications, not the last.

The Frenchtown strategy is to charge developers for the strain their housing developments place on emergency response resources, a matter that will be discussed at a fire district public hearing March 31 and presented to the commissioners April 1. Unlike the typical approach of taking property tax assessments to fund service upgrades, impact fees don’t come out of the pockets of existing residents, thereby forgoing the common pageantry of up-at-arms taxpayers.

“It’s not a tax, it’s a fee,” explains Scott Waldron, Frenchtown Rural Fire chief. “We need to accommodate for growth and if we can’t do that inside our budget we have to find ways to do it outside our budget.”

Waldron’s proposal would tack $1,989 onto the price of a new single-family home in the Frenchtown district, according to a Feb. 23 study by planning consultants Tischler-Bise. If approved, the district expects the policy to take effect sometime during the summer.

The policy pitch is the latest in an ongoing effort to mitigate the problems rural fire districts face as increasing numbers of homes are built in remote, fire-prone landscapes. Waldron—who distinguished himself during the Black Cat fire last August—stands out in front on the issue. Other chiefs, facing the same dilemma, say they’re now monitoring his progress in Frenchtown.

Seeley Lake Fire Chief Frank Maradeo reports that he’s seen his call volume triple over the past five years. “Scott’s always set the pace,” Maradeo says. “He’s trying to be proactive—he’s always been that way.”

A statewide edition of an impact fees system, pushed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, made a small splash before tanking in early 2007. According to Waldron, a countywide bid six years ago met a similar end.
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