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Polson debates de-annexation of property

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When Lyle and Shelley Smith, owners of OH Well Drilling and Pump, acquired two tracts of land adjacent to their business atop Polson Hill, they thought it was outside of the Polson city limits, as is their current property. 

Shelley Smith told the Polson City Commission at its regular meeting last Monday that she had looked at Montana Cadastral before buying the property and called the state to confirm that the land wasn’t part of the city. “All three lots showed as rural,” she said. “We never expected to be here and made the purchase off of the information we were given.”

The Smiths, along with surveyor Marc Castens, were at the meeting to ask commissioners to support their request to de-annex those lots, which encompass roughly 70 acres, from the city. They hope to construct 32 slots for high-end motorcoaches, and perhaps add cabins, tent sites and, eventually, multi-family housing. 

But hooking up to city utilities, as annexation requires, could make the project unfeasible, they say. Carsten estimates the couple would need to spend from $480,000 to $1 million to connect to city water and sewer, if they could secure relevant easements. 

He also said the city’s development standards, which require asphalt paving, curbs, gutters and sidewalks, would amp up costs considerably. “And all this expense for a development dedicated to seasonal use.” 

The property in question was annexed to the city in 2014 as part of a larger parcel added at the behest of several landowners, including Knife River Corporation, Mike and Marlo Maddy, Sue and Chris Toppen and James Davies. It was added with the stipulation that owners would pay any infrastructure costs related to development. 

City manager Ed Meece urged the city to adhere to the original resolution for several reasons. 

The development proposed by Smiths is perched at what Meece describes as the “southern gateway to Polson,” and is part of a large swath of land zoned for low-density housing and commercial development. Removing it from the city, which would allow owners to potentially use an existing well and build a septic system, means the property would then demarcate the “southern border” of Polson, denying the city the option of expanding further since the well and septic would be “incompatible” with the city’s system. 

He noted that if the Smiths choose to develop the property, they would qualify for pro-rated reimbursements from any developers who might eventually seek to tap into their infrastructure within the next 20 years. 

He emphasized that the city is currently in the midst of a housing crisis, largely driven by a lack of diverse inventory, and that the Smiths’ property is well suited for additional multi-family housing. Indeed, when Knife River applied for annexation, it apparently aspired to build a sizeable housing development on the site.   

Meece also noted that as part of the city, landowners currently pay taxes to support emergency services. If de-annexed, those tax revenues disappear even though police, rescue personnel and fire fighters are still bound by agreements with local agencies to respond. 

The city manager added that he “distrusts” septic systems and believes the city’s wastewater treatment system is more “efficient, effective and healthier ecologically.” 

Carsten conjectured that future development in the area, at the city’s current rate of growth, could take some time and will contribute to sprawl by encouraging growth at the edges instead of infill at the city center. 

“Sprawl is in the eye of the beholder,” countered Meece. “You might call it sprawl and I might call it land for future growth.”

County Commissioner Bill Barron voiced the county’s interest in de-annexation, especially given the high-producing well that’s on the property. He said the county had looked at buying the tracts with the idea of establishing a water system there “but the Smiths beat us to it.” 

According to Barron, several homes in the area currently haul water and the well is productive enough to supply water to existing houses, while supporting future growth, and covering the Smith’s proposed development. In addition, the nearby county property housing a rural fire station is a possible location for a future jail, which would need a robust water source.

“A lot of people could benefit from a water system out there,” he told the commission. 

The Smiths plan to present a formal request in April. Meanwhile, Carstens told commissioners “we welcome your thoughts and comments between now and then.”

In other business:

- Two new employees were introduced: code enforcement officer Tom Mavity, who brings 23 years in law enforcement to his post; and city attorney and prosecutor David Michie, who is getting briefed on his new duties from outgoing attorney Skyler Bagley.

- Meece characterized a “housing solutions” discussion held earlier that afternoon as “a very positive session” that attracted about 14 members of the building community. Topics included possible changes to the development code, workforce development, and streamlining processes at city hall. A recording of the meeting is available on the city’s website. 

- The commission reappointed Rick LaPiana to the seven-member city/county planning board, and is looking for two more city residents to volunteer for the board.

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