When Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality sent Larry Alheim to investigate citizen complaints of excessive dust in Flathead County, there wasn’t much to see. That’s because of the three roads he drove, Trumble Creek, Conn and Jellison roads, all were at a 100 percent opacity rate – meaning there was zero visibility through the dust while driving at or below the speed limit.
“At one point I had to pull over when a gravel truck passed heading the other direction because I didn’t feel safe driving,” he said. “The dust was drifting off the road several hundred feet, impacting people in the nearby homes.”
After several notices went ignored, the DEQ got the county’s attention in January with a $29,000 fine for dust pollution, pushing a decades-long conflict between the county and residents to a pricey pinnacle. Now, after having its first dust abatement proposal rejected by the DEQ, the county is waiting to hear if its revised proposal will make the grade, and exploring options from gas taxes to road closures to deal with dust.
Alheim said the county should hear word of the DEQ’s decision within the next 30 days, but noted that the department hadn’t received two other documents in addition to the proposal that he expected Sept. 1: proposed environmental improvement projects that could make up for the fine, and measurable benchmarks for the DEQ to assess the county’s progress. According to Alheim, 53 dust complaints were filed for Flathead County between 1998 and December 2006 – by far the most in Montana. Lewis and Clark County came in a distant second for that time period with 24, and 22 counties had no complaints at all.
Homeowners, some who say they have been petitioning county commissioners for years, point to the fine as support for paving more roads and boosting the road department’s budget. But the 2008 county budget shows no significant increase in the road department’s funding, and county officials remain steadfast that paving the county’s 400 miles of gravel roads – or even a portion of them – is neither a requirement of the DEQ fine nor a feasible option under current budget constrictions.
County Administrative Officer Mike Pence and County Commissioner Joe Brenneman lay some of the blame for financial frustrations on lawmakers. Brenneman said the Legislature “hasn’t given the county a lot of authority on saying where subdivisions can and can’t go, or the division of family lands.” Pence said the county is allowed to increase taxes by half of the estimated cost of living: “That doesn’t leave money for major road projects. We aren’t keeping up with road maintenance – let alone road paving – with this funding.”
Mark Gluth, frustrated with the lack of response from county officials and the excessive dust near his home on McMannamy Draw, joined others to form Citizens for Paved Roads. At a recent meeting, officers of the 25-member group were loaded with binders full of notes, newspaper articles and county documents – but low on optimism. “Everyone who has given up on the county has gone to the state, but there is no recourse anywhere. Admittedly, we are pretty powerless,” Gluth said.
“We’re caught in a shell game of moving money around,” added vice president Steve Radosevich.
The group is frustrated with the county’s repeated claims that it lacks funding, pointing most recently to the planned addition of a public works director and the $125,000 allocation to form a Road Advisory Committee to study the dust problem. “Why do they need a committee to look at a problem we already know exists?” Radosevich said. “They make us feel stupid, like we can’t understand the problem, but it shouldn’t be this hard.”
Pence defends the advisory committee as a group that will examine current policies and generate new ideas regarding the county’s current policies and financial situation.
Gluth and Radosevich said they and their neighbors spend hundreds to have their road oiled each year. This year the private company they hired had to return twice to re-oil their guaranteed work, because traffic beat the oil off the road. “I won’t be surprised if next year the company won’t agree to do it,” Gluth said. “They lost money off of our road this year, because they had to redo it.”
According to the county, the average rural property owner pays about $75 annually in property taxes toward road maintenance, which includes snow removal, gravel, road grading, asphalt overlays, chip seal, ditch cleaning and other services. On McMannamy Draw, the county said it received $18,705 in taxes over two-and-a-half years and spent $95,910 on maintenance.
“I have several angry people call who say ‘I just spent five or six hundred dollars on oil to keep dust down. Why doesn’t the county pay to oil? Why don’t you pave my road?’” Pence said. “Well, I have to explain to those individuals that they’ve only paid $75, maybe $90, worth of road services.”
So, without throwing money or road pavers at the problem, the city has explored several other funding and dust control options in recent months.
The county commissioners proposed an interlocal agreement that would collect a gas tax of a few cents on every gallon of gas as a way to fund road repairs and maintenance throughout the valley. The proposal would have to pass through city councils before going on the ballot, but many questions remain as to how the money generated would be distributed. Pence said details of the tax are still being worked out but estimates the total funds raised will be around $1.2 million annually. If the revenue was split proportionally by population, the county would receive about 60 percent of the total – a significant boost to the budget.
The county commissioners also passed an emergency resolution last week to allow them to close Prairie View Road – this coming after traffic there increased when the city of Kalispell closed Church Drive in August for construction of the Silverbrook development.
The possible closure marked a communication breakdown between the city and the county, with a city official saying he didn’t appreciate what he saw as “finger-pointing” and “scapegoating” from the county.
Other possible solutions in the county’s DEQ proposal include pushing bonds that allow property owners to borrow from the city to pay to pave their own roads; lowering rural speed limits or increasing enforcement on rural roads; and a standardized complaint process to improve communication with residents and the DEQ.
Members of Citizens for Paved Roads called the proposal “flowery” and “totally inadequate.” County officials, however, hope that this time around they’ve met the DEQ’s expectations of “reasonable precautions” for dust abatement and are moving toward solutions.
“It’s really a problem that’s larger than life,” Pence said.