BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — In 2021 Montana State Parks’ free lease of 337 acres at Hell Creek on Fort Peck Reservoir expires. Between now and then the state is planning to negotiate a new 20-year lease with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Hell Creek Marina and adjoining state park create a complexity not found at other state parks, the Billings Gazette reported. Clint and Deb Thomas own and run Hell Creek Marina. The marina operates on a lease from Montana State Parks, which oversees adjacent Hell Creek State Park.
“I am not a concessionaire,” Thomas emphasized. He owns the marina buildings, including a small motel, docks, store and other improvements to the property.
“I’ve got $2 million invested,” he said.
That’s not the case at other areas, such as Tongue River Reservoir State Park, where Montana State Parks owns the marina’s facilities and hires a concessionaire to operate it.
In order for Montana State Parks to renew its lease with the Army Corps at Hell Creek the agency has to be “in good standing” with the Corps of Engineers. That currently isn’t the case because their sub-lessees, the Thomases, have several regulatory violations.
The violations include: work below the high water line without a proper permit; possible violation of sanitation regulations for allowing two RVs to hook up to the Thomases’ septic system; a 2016 failure to filter and disinfect lake water used at the marina and motel; and 25 Department of Environmental Quality violations between 2017 and 2018 for failing to collect monthly water samples for testing.
The Thomases have been asked to supply a letter from the Garfield County sanitarian or DEQ to the state to certify the septic system can handle the RV hookups. The water issue could be cleared up by hooking up to the state’s new water system at the adjacent park. Although Montana State Parks director Beth Shumate said in a letter that the Thomases’ plan lacks “specificity,” the agency is working with the DEQ and Corps to resolve the water issue, “hopefully with an approval.”
The “multiple” shoreline violations “which have existed for several years” could be resolved with more information from the Thomases, according to Shumate’s letter.
“The term violation is extreme,” said James Gustafson of the Friends of Hell Creek user group, “for the most part these alleged violations are nothing more than fix it tickets …”
The Corps has now drawn a line in the sand. According to a Jan. 21 letter from the agency to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks detailing the violations, “no new development or work, that has not previously received written approval, will be allowed to take place within lands included in the Hell Creek State Park lease, until all the violations have been addressed and resolved. Until that occurs, we consider both the FWP and Clint and Deb Thomas to be in non-compliance with the lease requirements … ”
“The ball’s in (Clint Thomas’) court right now,” said Darin McMurry, the Corps’ operations project manager for the Fort Peck Dam Project.
The letter also states that the Thomases were made aware of the violations previously, acknowledge the problems, and promised to address the issues, but have not. The unauthorized work below the high water mark, if not addressed, could lead to “substantial civil and/or criminal fines and penalties,” the Corps warned.
“It’s really starting to get nasty and bloody,” Thomas said.
The Feb. 10 letter from Shumate, Montana State Parks director, to the Thomases warned that, “Because of violations of state and federal laws and regulations, you are not in good standing for purposes of exercising the right of first refusal for a continued concession operation at Hell Creek State Park.”
The letter also noted that about a year ago FWP staff met with Thomas, his engineering consultant and representatives from the Corps in Lewistown during which instructions and timelines for addressing the violations was discussed.
“While we recognize that completing the work to resolve the (below water line) violations is a significant undertaking in time, expense and labor, we must require a good faith effort on your part to address these issues. Without proactive action on your part, the remaining steps for issuance of the permits will not occur in time for you to complete the work prior to spring high-water conditions. Thus, the federal violations will continue unless you take steps to resolve these ongoing issues.”
The letter also acknowledges that should the Thomases’ contract be extended there will “undoubtedly” be “some terms and conditions that will be changed and revised in the new lease agreement,” considering that the current document is 25 years old.
There are two ways to look at the issues that have developed at the park. The one that Thomas and the Friends of Hell Creek have circulated is that the couple has been unfairly treated by the two agencies.
“I’m the poor bastard caught in the middle,” he said.
The other perspective is that the Thomases have delayed correcting the violations that could compromise their new marina lease, while also jeopardizing the state’s opportunity to renew its lease with the Army Corps.
“They’re all there to serve the public,” said John Daggett, former Fort Peck project manager for the Corps. “I think the state has been more than patient.”
Daggett also said when the Corps does inspections “it’s as fair a process as anyone can ask for.”
Whether the marina will be operational this summer is unknown, Thomas said.
“I may lose it all but I can’t really walk away from it,” he said. “I’ve got everything in my life invested in it. I don’t have a thick enough check book to walk away from it.”
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