State Makes Final Push to Use Stimulus on South Bypass

By Beacon Staff

The push is on.

The Montana Department of Transportation has about two months to secure remaining right-of-way easements – or come comfortably close – on the south portion of the U.S. Highway 93 bypass in Kalispell.

If not, federal stimulus money currently aimed at that project will go elsewhere – most likely north to another segment of the road.

“We have 60 days to fish or cut bait,” MDT Director Jim Lynch told landowners along the southern bypass route at a meeting last week.

The Department of Transportation identified 69 projects earlier this year to receive a portion of the state’s $211 million in transportation infrastructure funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The southern portion of the bypass – running from Highway 93 to U.S. Highway 2 near Appleway Drive – is currently on that list.

To satisfy requirements, the transportation department must have half of its funds obligated by June 30 and the other half by Feb. 17, 2010. If the state doesn’t meet those deadlines, the funds will be put back into a federal pool and redistributed to states that have projects ready to go.

“It’s very important we look at projects we can complete because we can’t afford to lose the money,” Lynch said.

At a meeting on May 14 at the Hilton Garden Inn, Lynch told landowners he and his staff were optimistic they could complete negotiations in time to use the stimulus money on the southern portion of the bypass.

In all, there are 132 affected property owners along the proposed bypass route. Thirty-eight of those require owner notifications, but no right-of-way purchase.

Of the cases where the state does have to buy rights, 29 sales are closed with another 12 “real close,” Lynch said. The remaining 53 properties are in the acquisition stage, meaning appraisals have been completed but a deal hasn’t been reached.

In an effort to expedite the process for the remaining parcels, Lynch said the department is meeting weekly to update its staff on the progress.

Landowners at last week’s meeting, however, indicated it could be an uphill battle.

At the beginning of the meeting, landowners mingled, looking at maps of the affected parcels and comparing appraisal prices. “I think we’re getting screwed,” one woman said to her husband, comparing a nearby landowner’s appraisal to her own.

Others talked about how long they had lived on their property, the trees or fences they would lose to the construction, or how they never thought the bypass would actually happen.

When Lynch asked the crowd during the meeting if they liked what the agency was doing the response was a resounding, “No.” His follow-up question about whether they liked the bypass received the same contrary response.

“What, I think, many of us have a problem with is the attitude and disposition the state has taken toward this process,” Douglas Mead, a landowner along the southern portion of the bypass, said. “It seems a bit frivolous. We’re talking about disrupting people’s lives.”

For Beckie Lawlor, who lives on one-third of an acre near the bypass’ planned intersection with U.S. Highway 2, bypass construction likely means she’ll have to find a new home.

The state’s easement will take out Lawlor’s septic tank, and because of the property’s size, essentially render the entire parcel useless. Lawlor said she didn’t realize she was in the path of the bypass when she bought it last year.

“I probably wouldn’t have bought it knowing it would be at risk in a year,” she said.

MDT officials assured Lawlor that if the bypass forced her out that the department would pay to relocate her into a comparable home.

The tension between property owners and the state, however, appeared to largely come down to money, as homeowners questioned why their appraisal prices were different than their neighbors. Several also said they didn’t feel they were being compensated for the negative effect the bypass would have on their remaining property’s value.

According to state privacy laws, negotiations with each property owner are private until they close the deal, at which point the final price paid becomes public information.

MDT officials stressed that the final amount often includes payment for changes to the property like septic tanks or fencing – not just the price per acre.

Appraisal prices are also influenced by how large the property is, MDT attorney Ed Bodett said. Since an easement would take up a larger – and more financially significant – portion of a 1-acre property than it would a 10-acre one, the smaller property will likely be paid more per square foot.

Despite reassurances from the state that the process was fair and upfront, several landowners remained skeptical.

If negotiations for the southern end hit a roadblock, then Lynch said his department would look at the northern portion of the bypass.

Whatever piece is chosen, it must have independent utility, meaning it’s useful to drivers as soon as it’s built. “We can’t build a bridge to nowhere,” Lynch said, adding that the north bypass section from U.S. 2 to the high school or the piece behind Hutton Ranch Plaza could fit the bill.

“We could be having construction on the Highway 93 bypass by next spring,” Lynch said.

That’s a groundbreaking that many Flathead residents, including those living along the bypass’ path, thought they would never see.

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