Sparks fly at latest Paradise sewage meeting

by CHUCK BANDEL
Valley press | January 13, 2021 12:00 AM

After suffering a legal setback two weeks ago when a local judge denied their request for a temporary restraining order to halt activity related to the planned Paradise sewage system, protesters were looking for a win.

They got it Friday night in the form of a two-week delay on further activity during an often contentious four-plus hour video conference with representatives from both sides of the issue.

In the end, the Paradise Sewer Board, after a long debate and some soul-searching, agreed by a 4-1 vote to pass a motion that created a two-week pause in the proceedings.

The time will be spent canvassing residents of the small, unincorporated town to get an accurate count of the number of property owners and renters who oppose or are in favor of the proposed $4.5 million sewer installation project.

Board President Sunny Chase cast the lone no vote to the motion, which was put forth by Board member Terry Caldwell.

Caldwell, who said he is not opposed to the project at present, said it was something the Board owed the town’s residents.

“It’s very disconcerting to me that there has not been the necessary transparency around this issue and we need to be transparent about everything here,” he said. “We should have a website or some way to make information available to everyone involved, including the members of this Board.”

At contention most of the night was the issue of transparency and a recent dispute over providing relevant documents to the protesters, led by local engineer and property owner Katy French.

French had requested several key documents involved in the project, including all that were related to a Memorandum of Understanding that was agreed to between Chase and local property owner/developer Bridger Bischoff, who has proposed a residential building project on the north side of the town on land he owns.

Chase earlier informed French the time and personnel required to obtain the documents she requested would cost in excess of $1,200, money needed to hire a consultant and assistant to reproduce the requested documents.

The original purpose of the Zoom meeting was to get full board agreement to the MOU by signing the proposal which opponents say grants unfair sewer control to Bischoff at a bargain price in exchange for his agreeing to sell other land he owns in the area to the sewer board.

That other parcel of land would be used to construct a massive underground sewage storage facility that would store waste from a proposed multi-million dollar sewage line and hookup construction project.

Bischoff was not present for the meeting.

Participants who logged onto the public conference and wished to voice their opinions were limited to two minutes each by Chase, who was hoping to avoid a lengthy debate.

“Your two minutes are up,” Chase said to French at one point early in the meeting. “We need to follow our agenda. I already knew it would take way too long.”

That prompted others who joined the conference, including opposition leader LeeAnn Overman, to donate their two minutes to French who adamantly opposes the project and the projected expenses it would involve.

"Board members should not move forward with this if they don’t have the necessary information before them,” French said. “I ask again to table this motion (to sign the MOU) until Board members have the information before them to allow them to make an informed decision.”

Board member Adam Rice, who says he has been torn by the matter, ultimately agreed with a motion by Caldwell to grant a two-week stand-down to allow for an informal polling of area residents and an effort to establish an information data base for all to see. Other board members ultimately agreed.

“It would be good to have the board have input on things that go out,” Caldwell said, admitting he and other board member do not have copies of many of the documents involved.

Matt Jaramillo, of Big Sky Networks, said he would volunteer to establish a data base that would allow both sides access to important material.

Toward the end of the four-hour session, Caldwell managed to convince other board members that getting an accurate assessment of support or opposition to the project is a necessary and proper thing to do.

“I move we hold off, at least for a while, to mull it over,” he said. “I have concerns about keeping peace in the community. We represent the people of the community, all of the people. Let’s take a little time to get our house in order.”

When informed by Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker that a vote on the matter would cost several thousand dollars and be borne by area residents, Caldwell countered that he would create an informal flyer seeking a simply yay or nay from area residents and that he would pay for it and take it personally to every residence in the community.

That drew a warning from Bob Church, a representative of Great West Engineering, the firm the county has chosen to facilitate design of the proposed project.

Church said that current economic conditions favor moving ahead with the construction process and that a changing economy could make costs associated with the project less attractive to contractors.

Church became increasingly agitated as the meeting progressed, at one point telling participants he “didn’t give a sh.t” if they took a proposed extension line to the old school house in Paradise off the plan.

Church also advised the conference participants that delay or ultimately cancelling the project could leave area residents on the hook for costs already spent toward planning and other expenses, most of which have been paid out by Great West using federal grant money. He also agreed a two- to four-week delay would not jeopardize the project.

“Two or three weeks is not going to effect this matter, but a year will,” he said. “Typically these with these kind of community projects it’s the vocal minority who are against it. If you seek input you need to go to the people who are for it too.”

After agreeing to the pause, the board set a date and time for a new meeting to take up the matter and assess results of the informal survey.