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Paradise sewer opponents undaunted despite legal setback

by CHUCK BANDEL
Valley press | December 30, 2020 12:00 AM

Despite a recent setback, citizens opposing the Paradise sewer construction project say they have not and will not give up their fight against the $4.5 million plan to install a sewage system in their town.

Earlier last week a request for a temporary restraining order was filed with the Montana 20th District Court in Polson, seeking a temporary halt to the project.

The request sought to halt further work on the project, which is slated to begin this spring, until a formal hearing can be conducted to determine the merits of the proposed sewer system and its impact on local residents.

The basis of the request rested on protesters' claims the project is not needed, is too costly and has progressed without following state Constitutional guidelines.

However, according to protest leader Lee Ann Overman, a long-time Paradise property owner, the court denied the request and gave protest leaders 30 days to appeal that decision.

Overman said Katy French, a Paradise property owner and practicing engineer familiar with such projects and the one who filed the request, received notification in the mail that the complexity of the issue should involve the protesters obtaining legal assistance.

Acquiring legal assistance, French and others say, would require the protest group to raise thousands of dollars to support such assistance.

“The case clearly supports a TRO until the hearing, and then a formal injunction (to stop the project),” French said prior to receiving word of the denial. “The TRO is supported with affidavits from Plains Mayor Dan Rowan, former sewer Board member Jima McHargue and statements from (board President) Sunny Chase saying publicly they haven’t followed the rules, and no supporting evidence of their own because they can’t produce agendas, meeting minutes or meeting notices.”

Overman expressed disappointment over the decision, saying it puts sewer foes in a daunting situation.

“We didn’t get the TRO at this time,” she said. “The court said she (French) needs to have legal help because it is so complicated. It would mean we would have to raise approximately $10,000 in a week.”

The proposed project, which would come with a $39 a month service fee, has been opposed by a vast majority of property owners in the unincorporated town in southern Sanders County. Some residents say their existing septic tanks are working well.

Opponents say the project is designed to benefit local developer Bridger Bischoff, who has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Board to install the sewer system along the border of property he owns on the town’s northern edge.

Bischoff, opponents claim, is being granted control of up to 75 percent of the system's capacity to be used in a large housing development he has planned on his property.

Opponents are also upset over the site of a planned sewage storage facility on what recent studies show has a very shallow water table that would be a contamination risk during high water years and potential flooding from the nearby Clark Fork River. Land for that facility is part of a pending agreement with Bischoff, who is selling the approximately six acres for use as a sewage site.

They also point to claims by state engineers who are familiar with the proposal that they say is a flawed endeavor by the proposed project’s chosen engineering firm, Great West Engineering. Many of those engineers also say the $4.5 million price tag is double their estimates and put the actual cost at between $2-2.5 million.

Overman, who recently filed a formal complaint against Great West Engineering with the Montana Board of Professional Engineers, says the fight will continue against the project. The board recently requested more formal information on the complaint from Overman, who complied.

No word on the outcome of that complaint has yet emerged.

“I don’t want people to think we lost and for the people to give up,” Overman said. “We are going to keep fighting, we are not done.”