Thursday, January 27, 2022

Paradise sewer project scaled down; dispute continues

Valley Press | January 5, 2022 12:00 AM

Snow flies and settles gently on the lawns and roof tops of this quiet Sanders County town, in stark contrast to the simmering tensions still boiling in the background.

After years of fighting, finger-pointing and accusations, the once-proposed Paradise sewer project has been halted in its tracks with the promise of a significantly scaled-down version a possible solution.

New names and new faces on both the Paradise Sewer Board and the Paradise Water Board, separate entities in this often-complicated battle, have replaced past members, most of whom were supporters of what was a $4.5 million proposal to install a catch-all sewer system in the unincorporated town of just over 100 residents.

The proposed system, a concept put forth by Great West Engineering and backed by at least one member of the Sanders County Board of Commissioners, would have installed a main-line sewer next to a proposed housing subdivision that would have involved anywhere from 18-35 new housing units on the town’s north side.

That proposed development was to be built beginning this past Springs on land owned by Paradise landowner Bridger Bishop and quickly drew the ire from a majority of the town’s approximately 80 property owners.

Opponents claimed sewer lines and other improvements to the development would have been paid for by a yearly fee and monthly sewage charges placed on the town’s existing residents, who would have been required, they say, to hook up to the new sewer line.

Most of the town’s residents are retired and limited income people, the majority of whom in an informal poll rejected the project by a two-to-one margin.

Paradise residents also bristled at what they feel was negligence and a blatant lack of transparency about the various meetings and planning along the way, accusing the Sewer Board of inadequate or non-existent notice of important public meetings.

A war of words and name calling broke out between several sewer opposition leaders and Commissioner Carol Brooker, who recently retired from more than two decades of service on the County Board.

The opposition forces, led in part by Paradise resident Lee Ann Overman, threatened legal and other actions to stop the project, which had been scheduled to begin in March of this past year.

Two date, not a shovel of dirt has been overturned.

“This has been a war being waged against our way of life,” Overman said recently. “This is about who we are and what we stand for. Instead, it has been a few people trying to regulate what we can and cannot do. A few elected officials who want to take away your rights, believing they are superior”.

This past fall, opponents upset with the sewer board’s support of the project which they say was at least double in price for what other engineers said it should be, managed to persuade the county to hold a recall election for two of the sitting Sewer Board members, including it’s now ex-President Sunny Chase. Chase was recalled along with Rick McCullough and both chose to step down in the wake of the vote. Another member resigned before the vote.

Chase subsequently relinquished her position on the Paradise Water Board, an opening that was filled with the appointment of Paradise resident, sewer opponent and certified engineer Katy French.

But the recall action for the sewer board members quickly drew the ire of protesters who claimed Brooker “stacked” the deck with known sewer opponents. However, one of the three members backed a vote that would eventually lead to a “stop and start all over” type arrangement.

What has emerged in subsequent meetings is a scaled down, lower cost project that would involve sewer lines for just the existing town and give landowners the option of hooking up or not.

That appears to have the support of long-time resident Dan Risland who has maintained all along that a sewer system is not needed.

“My septic system is nearly brand new and works fine,” Risland said. “I don’t need a new one or need to be paying $40 a month for something I don’t use”.

Opponents are hoping the appointment of Plains Mayor Dan Rowan to the Board of Commissioners will help their cause. However, Rowan, who has expressed concerns about the proposed system, was recently re-elected mayor of Plains and cannot assume duties with the Board of Commissioners until a replacement mayor is found. That process has stalled due to a lack of applicants for the mayoral post.

And many of the opponents argue there is nothing wrong with the town’s water supply or quality.

“We are a long way away from the river (Clark Fork) the backers of this project say could flood and harm the water supply,” Overman said. “We have some of the best water in the state and our water tank is located on a hill”.

And opponents are also buoyed by the cancellation, or expiration, of a memo of understanding between Sanders County and property owner Bishop in which the County agree to purchase six acres of land Bishop owns on the town’s western edge. That parcel of land would have been used to construct the new system’s holding tank facilities, which opponents claim was in the middle of an annual flood plain.

Jina McHargue, a local resident who is also a past member of the Sewer Board, said governing rules for the Board indicate if something such as a MOU is not signed, it must be returned to the Board and the process begun all over. McHargue said she was ultimately forced to resign after being treated badly by Board members.

“There needs to be a vote on this matter,” she said. “There needs to be a vote by the people on the whole project. People don’t want this.”

The opposition is also up in arms about a recent report that $24,000 is missing and unaccounted for from the Water Board budget that they suspect was used to pay for sewer planning related matters. However, no receipts and accounting notations of the allegedly missing funds has been found to date, though Overman and others think it was paid to Great West.

There is also a matter of federal grant money that may or may not have to be returned if the project is indeed completely undone.

Overman and others remained undeterred in their opposition to the sewer issue and vow to continue their battle.

“So win continue on,” she said. “And we fight for the rights of the people. It’s our right to speak out about what we see is wrong.”

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