Emotions High as County Considers Landfill Expansion

By Beacon Staff

Driving to the Sweets’ house north of Kalispell, it’s easy to see why the family chose to buy the property in 1988. Prairie View Road offers stunning views of the West Valley. And on Bright Star Trail, the gravel road to their home, dense trees hide neighbors tucked away in an idyllic Montana setting.

It’s easy to forget the Flathead County Landfill is visible on the north side of the road.

When Cindy Sweet and her husband Charles bought their property, it was a densely wooded parcel, she said. The realtor told them the landfill had 12 years left before it was full, Sweet said, and the 40 acres across the road were filled with trees and underbrush.

But the landfill has expanded, creeping south close to their property line. The Sweets are among the 15 landowners who will receive letters from Flathead County regarding more landfill expansion. Fourteen of the owners – including the Sweets – live near the southwest corner of the landfill, and the 15th lives across Prairie View with 541 acres of farmland.

David Prunty, Flathead County’s public works director, told the Flathead County Commission that the Solid Waste Board is “very close” to sending the letters to the landowners in the two areas where the county is considering buying their land for future landfill expansion.

The letter will inform the landowners about the county’s expansion ideas, and will ask them if they are interested in selling to the county with a lease in place that would allow them to remain in their homes until the expansion takes place; they are interested in flat-out selling their land; or if they are not interested in selling at all.

The survey will “give us a little bit more of a direction” for the future, Prunty told the commission.

According to the 2009 strategic plan for the landfill, which serves as a “road map” for long-term management of the county’s waste, the landfill has approximately 275 acres approved for use. The report states that based on “current refuse inflow and projected inflow and diversion rates, as well as remaining waste disposal capacity,” the landfill could provide capacity for garbage through 2055.

The planning period laid out in the landfill’s strategic plan covers 100 years, from 2008 to 2108. With households and waste projected to increase in those years, the plan laid out several options for growth, including expansion, a new landfill site and using an out-of-county landfill.

Expanding southwest would mean buying the properties between the landfill and Prairie View Road, and Prunty told the commission that the meetings with landowners have been very emotional so far.

There’s been a range of interest among the landowners, Prunty said, with some saying they would sell right away and others adamantly in the no-sell camp.

Cindy Sweet said it’s a tough situation, because if the landowners don’t sell but the county acquires the land across the Prairie View Road, their property will be sandwiched by the landfill. That would be a hard sell for the property in the future, she said.

There’s also the emotional attachment to consider.

“We built our house; we raised our children there,” Sweet said. “My mom’s ashes are out there. We just love our home. We really don’t want to move.”

Sweet’s neighbor, Renee Olson, said she wants the county to consider other options, such as a transfer station and more recycling, instead of pursuing constant expansion.

The county should be thinking of ways to make the landfill “smaller and smarter,” Olson said. She’s also concerned that the 541 acres across Prairie View Road border the Stillwater River, and while “everyone has the right to sell their land,” it might not be prudent to put a landfill so close to the water.

The strategic plan for the landfill does consider recycling options and encourages the county to increase recycling options. Prunty told the commission that several of the landowners are concerned about expansion.

“I want to stress to you enough the emotions of the people who were (at a May 22 meeting),” he said.

Sweet said she doesn’t believe the appraisal value the county would offer for their property would be enough to relocate.

“What doesn’t factor in (a buyout offer) is the emotional attachment to the property,” she said.

Her daughter, Carly, agreed. At 26, Carly grew up on the property and thought it would be a place she could always call home.

“It’s a little upsetting that your childhood home that you thought you could bring your kids to could be gone,” she said.

The Flathead County Landfill strategic plan is available online at www.flathead.mt.gov/waste.

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