A district court judge has ordered that the Flathead County Commission can take no further action on a federal grant that would provide a group of homeowners with money to mitigate the erosion of a bluff near Whitefish Stage Road.
Last month, the commission voted to stop the process of a $400,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant. FEMA had agreed to pay $298,000, and the homeowners whose property is in danger of sloughing away paid the matching $102,000.
The county’s role would have been to manage the funds, which the commission agreed to in November, 2013. But the decision to stop the grant process has put the federal funds in limbo.
In interviews, the county commissioners have said they have concerns about the county being held liable if something goes wrong with the project.
Two of the homeowners whose property on the bluff near Whitefish Stage Road – Susan Storfa and Scott Gearheart – filed suit against Flathead County, asking a judge to stop any further action by the commission, such as sending a letter to the state and to FEMA terminating the grant and forever nixing a project four years in the making.
The proposed project would construct safer slopes, provide adequate drainage to reduce the risk of flowing water removing more soil, restore the pond’s storm water capacity, repair damaged storm water pipes that were affected during the major slumping episodes, and reduce additional sources of water on the bluff.
On April 15, Judge Ted O. Lympus issued a temporary restraining order against the county commission, saying that the commission and its “agents and representatives are hereby restrained and enjoined from terminating the grant approved by FEMA, by letter or otherwise” until the case can be heard in court.
Lympus set a hearing for April 23 for both sides of the argument to provide information and cause about why the preliminary injunction should or should not have been issued.
Storfa said she is pleased with the judge’s decision, but she still hopes the issue can be handled out of court.
“I hope and pray that the county commissioners will take notice and listen to our pleas and rethink their position,” Storfa said.
Concerns about the bluff’s erosion began in 2010, when about two-thirds of Storfa’s backyard slid away in a major landslide. She tried to find a grant to stabilize her property, but found she would need more people involved if she wanted public funds.
After the wet spring of 2011, the president issued a declaration of disaster for Montana due to the flooding, and Storfa started pursuing a FEMA grant, like the kind the City of Kalispell received to stabilize the Buffalo Hills Golf Course after flooding.
Working with the Flathead County Office of Emergency Services, Storfa, her neighbors, and the Village Greens Golf Course community situated below the bluff sent a letter of intent to pursue a hazard mitigation grant.
The grant application makes note that the properties in question – six lots to the east of Whitefish Stage Road and west of Village Greens – are in both Flathead County’s and the City of Kalispell’s jurisdictions.
The bluff’s geologic components include clay and silt, and there has been development activity in the area since the 1970s, when the Mission Valley subdivisions started cropping up north of the properties listed in the grant application.
However, in recent years, the significant erosion events – landslides in at least two places, one behind Storfa’s house, and a smaller one behind the property two houses north of the Storfas’ – coupled with high groundwater levels and flooding on the Stillwater River have led to considerable sloughing.
“If unabated the annual erosion rate of the slope will catalyze catastrophic failure of six residences over the next three to eight years,” the FEMA grant application reads.
Total tax appraisal values for the properties in question come to about $1.4 million.
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