County Commission Tables DNRC Grant Application

Flathead County Economic Development Authority had requested a grant to assess brownfields sites

By Micah Drew
The Flathead County Courthouse on March 11, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Commission earlier this month voted to table discussion over authorizing the Flathead County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA) to apply for a grant to assess brownfields sites in the county.

Brownfields sites are properties that may be contaminated due to a previous use, such as old gas stations, wrecking yards or dry cleaners, or have the stigma of contamination that may complicate future redevelopment or use.

FCEDA has previously applied for grants through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Brownfields and Land Revitalization Program, which provides funding to address contaminated sites by assessing and safely cleaning up properties.

According to FCEDA CEO Christy Dawson, FCEDA recently missed out on qualifying for EPA funding, and one way to strengthen future applications is by creating an inventory of brownfields sites in the county.

Dawson submitted an application to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) for a grant to assess and inventory potential brownfields sites in Flathead County, but DNRC required the commissioners support for the application.

Commissioner Pam Holmquist was hesitant to the idea.

“This is just to do an assessment, I get that,” she said. “But if we buy into an assessment, we buy into whatever the cleanup is down the road.”

Holmquist’s concerns were echoed by the other two commissioners, who did not want to take on the potential liability for cleaning up contaminated sites if they were identified through the inventory process.

“I look at the brownfields program as a facilitator for private development,” Dawson said. “It’s really meant to either get the specter of contamination off a site by showing that it’s clean and ready for development, or it helps get a site to the point where developers can take it and run with a project.”

The FCEDA application stated that one goal of working with brownfields programs would be to mitigate the affordable housing shortage in the county by cleaning up reusable urban land located just outside of city limits. Cities apply for their own brownfields grants.

“This is just one more tool to keep development going. Getting sites that might not be attractive to developers on their lists,” Dawson said. “It’ll help keep sprawl in areas that already have had development, instead of every canola field turning into a subdivision.”

The commissioners ultimately decided against signing off for the grant.

“As we found out with our trail system, we received a lot of grants from the state, but then found out later we had to pay for the maintenance and now we’re millions of dollars behind,” Holmquist said. “If we’re willing to spend money to [do assessments], we should be willing to say we’re going to go forward with [cleanup] in the future.”

EPA grants through the brownfields program can be up to $10 million for the cleanup of identified sites. FCEDA has previously used EPA grants to clean up the CHS grain elevator site in Kalispell before it was sold. The Glacier Rail Park also went through an EPA Brownfields Assessment and Cleanup Grant Program prior to being redeveloped into a business park.

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