Paradise residents continue fight against sewer plan
A group of Paradise sewage plant protesters stand in front of the field where the giant septic tank would be buried. (Chuck Bandel/Valley Press)
By CHUCK BANDEL
As a well-worn phrase goes, “it ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
That is what opponents of the proposed Paradise sewer system project hope will ring true as they amp up their battle with Sanders County and Great West Engineering.
To that extent, opponents of the project, who are the vast majority of the property owners living in the unincorporated town of Paradise, are stepping up their assault on the status, cost, need and effectiveness of the project.
In the middle of their assault is local property owner Bridger Bischoff, who has proposed a two-scale residential development on land he owns along the northern and western edges of the town.
While the protesters remain resolute in their opposition to the project and its developmental consequences, a recent announcement from the office of U.S. Senator John Tester (D) may prove to be a game changer.
In a statement from Tester’s office, they announced “that Sanders County will receive a $770,000 loan and a $190,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to install a new wastewater collection unit in Paradise, Montana.”
“Whether its for our schools, our main street businesses, or our families, clean water is critical to Montana’s communities, especially during these unprecedented times,” Tester said.
The press release said Sanders County will receive the funding as part of the USDA Development Loan Program to install a wastewater collection and treatment system in the unincorporated town of Paradise. The current substandard treatment methods are contributing to degraded water quality for both the town’s domestic water supply and the adjacent Clark Fork River.
That goes against protester's claims, backed by one engineer, who say there is minimal threat from leakage into groundwater or to the nearby river.
Opponents say they plan to move ahead with protests to the Department of Environmental Quality, claiming the system is not needed and way overpriced. They also claim the site where the wastewater collection facility would be buried is in the middle of a historic flood plain and has water table levels too high to bury anything.
Responding to the announcement, protest leader Lee Ann Overman said she had not heard about the grant and loan, but if so it would be good news.
“Yes, the $770,00 is the $185 we’ve been arguing against,” Overman said. “Yes, that would be great news.”
Overman said she and others will withhold judgement about the announced loan until more is known.
“We don’t trust them,” she said. “Until we know for sure what is going on and how the loan will be paid back and by whom.”
Also in focus is property Bischoff has agreed to sell to the project’s backers where an underground sewage storage and treatment facility would be constructed.
Throughout the process, Bischoff, who operates a rock quarry on property he owns near the proposed residential development, has remained silent and has not responded to attempts by news organizations and others to respond to a growing chorus of criticism.
The project, which has been discussed and backed by the county and opposed by a large percentage of Paradise property owners, appears to be moving ahead.
A large group of residents, led by protest leaders Lee Ann Overman and Katy French, are vowing to fight on against what they say are potential questionable dealings involving Sanders County and Great West, which is designing and doing the groundwork to begin construction of the $4.5 million project as early as this coming March.
“We are not giving up and going away,” said Overman. “There is so much as stake here. There are a lot of people here who simply won’t be able to afford the cost of this project and may have to leave their homes and move elsewhere.”
French, a local property owner and a practicing engineer familiar with the planning and implementation of such projects, recently wrote a detailed letter which is being distributed to property owners throughout the town in which she points out numerous flaws and questionable data being used to move the project forward.
At the heart of the letter authored by French is the question of fairness and cost sharing outlined in a Memo of Understanding (MOU) signed by the Paradise Sewer Board and Bischoff.
“The importance of the MOU cannot be overstated,” French wrote. “It is alarming. It portends the development of not one, but two new subdivisions adjacent to the long settled Paradise proper (boundaries)”.
French and others contend the distribution of costs of future development will be ultimately borne by local residents due to agreements in the MOU which allocate three-quarters of the proposed system’s design for use in Bischoff’s residential proposals. That lack of control of the town’s future control over growth is also a bone of contention.
“It (the MOU) commits 75% of the designed community growth capacity of the system to Bridger’s “Paradise LLC” at a far below market value,” French contends. “It restricts future development in Paradise proper, but gives Paradise LLC monopolistic control of almost all of the growth capacity of the system.”
Documents obtained by the Valley Press suggest an agreement between Bischoff and the Sewer District set the price for another piece of land he owns to be sold to the District for $200,000. That parcel of land, just west of the town’s traditional boundaries, would be used to build the sewer systems collection, storage and treatment facilities.
French and others contend the sale and agreements with the Sewer District would allow Bischoff to cash in on federal grant money already secured for the project by Sanders County and in essence get a sewer system installed on his property as part of the total cost.
“To build a system to meet his (Bischoff’s) proposed development needs would cost him over $2 million today and he would be utilizing his own land.”
In response to a list of questions submitted by French to the Sanders County Commissioners about the concerns relating to cost allocation, Commissioner Carol Brooker acknowledged an agreement to acquire Bischoff’s property on which the system’s treatment facility would be built has moved forward.
“An agreement has been reached and a Buy/Sell is being drafted by the attorneys to each party,” Brooker said in a written reply. “The buy/sell will be contingent on Department of Environmental Quality approvals”.
In response to criticism that the agreements being worked out between Bischoff and the county will allow him to take advantage of situation by being part of the overall construction plan, Brooker said that was not the case.
“Mr. Bischoff is responsible for all fees related to subdivision design reviews and approval and the construction of required infrastructure to service his proposed developed,” Brooker wrote. “The agreement provides assurance that the new sewer system can handle flows from the proposed development.”
Brooker said the project is “fully endorsed” by Sanders County.
Opponents say they will continue their fight against the project in the months ahead and are currently awaiting responses to other documents they have requested and from state officials whom they have queried about other aspects of the project, including potential environmental concerns.
A recent report by Great West concerning the issue of building the treatment facility on what residents contend is a flood plain that could create serious groundwater contamination issues concluded that the area is suitable as a construction site.
Those conclusions were reached on the basis of a field survey begun in December of last year, an unusually dry winter and spring for the Paradise area.
Opponents want a much longer, more detailed study, noting a recent check of the field where the treatment facility would be buried showed groundwater as shallow as 36 inches below the surface.
“We are doing all we can to resist this unfair project,” Overman said. “There are all kinds of flaws in the data we have seen and a lot of it is just not true.”