State Insists on Sewer Solution

By Beacon Staff

It’s no surprise that the explosive growth and development that powered Kalispell’s north-side expansion has dropped off precipitously along with the economy. But while few developers actually plan on building their approved projects this summer, the state Department of Environmental Quality has indicated in a Feb. 4 letter that it may not allow any more development on the north side until the city demonstrates it can accommodate sewage needs required by the growth.

The letter has concerned the city council, which recently delayed a vote to approve a preliminary plat for Silverbrook Estates. Some developers are also now questioning how Kalispell can accommodate their sewage needs, particularly those who made investments in sewer and water lines with the understanding that subsequent developers would provide reimbursement when they link up to those lines under so-called latecomers agreements.

The DEQ letter has also irked city officials in its implication that Kalispell may not be able to handle the growth it has already approved. Public Works Director Jim Hansz said the idea that Kalispell must have sewer facilities in place now to accommodate the thousands of new homes approved for the north side, when a much smaller amount of development is likely to take place over the next few years, is an unrealistic and prohibitively expensive way to dictate how the city grows.

“We don’t build facilities that aren’t going to be needed for 30 years,” Hansz said. “This is a path that we have followed for years.”

At issue is the Grandview Lift Station, a facility located near Flathead Valley Community College’s southern edge which takes sewage from the homes and businesses in north Kalispell and pumps it up the hill toward the intersection of Northridge Drive and U.S. Highway 93. Gravity then takes over to carry the waste beneath downtown to the treatment plant south of the city. The city plans to upgrade Grandview and downstream sewer mains so it can accommodate an additional 1,168 homes, slightly more than the number of homes, businesses and government facilities currently approved for a preliminary plat in north Kalispell. A preliminary plat is a rough plan for a development, and DEQ must sign off on its sewage arrangement.

Grandview can handle most of the first phases of these developments, but the number of new homes slated for eventual construction dwarfs the lift station’s capacity. The Starling development alone will have some 3,000 homes.

“We have a lift station that was never intended to serve these vastly developing areas,” Hansz said. “It has now become the choke point because there’s only a certain amount that can go through it.”

With the construction slowdown, two developments – Starling and Bloomstone – are basically on hold, along with their commitments to help finance the Grandview expansion. The city is moving ahead with the lift station’s improvement anyway, but the incident has DEQ questioning the circumstances under which it grants exceptions, or what it calls “deviations,” to development before adequate sewage capacity is in place.

“While MDEQ has attempted to provide flexibility with our standards to accommodate development financing and construction schedules, that flexibility does not appear to have helped the city address its infrastructure needs,” the letter from two DEQ engineers reads. “Kalispell may request that subdivisions in the north Kalispell area be approved for connection to the city wastewater system, despite the fact that their connection would exceed the already committed downstream sewer collection capacity (even after the Grandview Lift Station has been upgraded). However, MDEQ is disinclined to support such a request at this site, at this time.”

The city’s plan to address the long-term needs of the northern development is to build a separate “Westside Interceptor” sewer line that bypasses the Grandview station, and carries sewage down to the treatment plant along a western route. Hansz said the city will pay for the venture the way it always has, by using water and sewer impact fees collected when new homes are built, combined with some other financing arrangement, like establishing a special improvement district (SID) or bonds.

But the DEQ letter also questions how Kalispell would pay for the new sewer line. Hansz said the Grandview expansion gives the city years to begin financing and building the Westside Interceptor, and it makes no sense to undertake such a project when developers can still back out of their ventures.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the fact that the Grandview Lift Station has the ability to raise its capacity,” Hansz said. “It’s all part of an overall plan that says maximize your use of what you have now – you don’t want to go out there and start throwing pipes in the ground and hope there will be development.”

Some developers, however, say the uncertainty over whether and when they will receive sewer service limits what they can do with their land. Brent Card is the managing member developing the Valley Ranch subdivision, which has not yet been approved for preliminary plat, and so has not been allocated a portion of Grandview’s capacity. He acknowledged the sluggish market has affected the pace of development, but the sewer situation hasn’t helped.

“Everyone is catching on that it’s affecting everybody,” Card said. “Sewer, to me, is the first issue of concern to the property, then worrying about the market.”

“It makes it impossible to sell if we want to,” he added. While he said no investors have pulled out of the project, his partners are “just very upset at the way things have moved,” and not having a sewer makes it tougher to find new investors, if necessary.

Howard Mann, the developer of Silverbrook Estates, has the first phase of his development allocated for Grandview sewage capacity, which puts him at considerably greater ease than those without sewer accounted for in the immediate future.

Despite the delayed vote caused by the DEQ letter, he anticipates the city council will approve the second phase of his development March 16, barring any unforeseen obstacles. Mann’s development has invested more than $4 million in high-capacity sewer and other utility pipes running down from Silverbrook, at Kalispell’s northern edge, with the understanding that he will be reimbursed as other developers along U.S. Highway 93 link up with his pipes.

“I think everything will be fine once they work this out with DEQ,” Mann said.

Hansz hopes to meet with DEQ officials this week to explain Kalispell’s perspective and work out some type of compromise, like when a certain level of homes are actually built, the city must have its financing in place for the new Westside Interceptor line. For their part, city council members want Hansz to deal with the dispute as soon as possible.

“They’ve asked us to energetically attempt to resolve this issue,” Hansz said.