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Missoula County appears close to an agreement that could begin construction of public sewer to about 1,000 households along Mullan Road.

Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt told the county commissioners Wednesday that most of the major issues in a lawsuit with the Mullan Road Coalition have been worked out. The remaining points involve how future homesites might be charged for connection to the $4.4 million sewer system and how much the county might pay of the coalition's attorney's fees.

"We're very, very close to final resolution on this," Sehestedt said Wednesday morning.

Coalition attorney Trent Baker confirmed Wednesday that the two sides were in settlement negotiations, but would not discuss the issues still outstanding.

"I'm hopeful," Baker said Wednesday afternoon. "We have a couple issues to work out. If we are going to settle, it's going to be before the deadline."

A settlement before May 23 is important to the county, because that's the deadline to accept construction bids for the project. The low bid came in about 20 percent less than county estimates, and the commissioners are anxious not to lose the good price.

The Mullan Road Coalition sued the county shortly after the sewer plan was approved in January. Its members claimed the county failed to properly notify all the affected property owners, gave misleading information about the cost of the system and unfairly used a policy of property rights waivers to keep owners in the taxing district. They also argued that the county wasn't following proper permitting practices and that one family in particular didn't get notified of the proposal.

A district judge threw out all but the last two issues in February. At the same time, Congress and the state government approved several subsidies for the project that greatly lowered costs to the property owners.

Sehestedt said the remaining family issue could be solved by excluding them from the sewer taxing district. They would be allowed to be re-included by paying the same sewer fees as the rest of the district members.

Baker said the coalition members met Monday and agreed to let the group's officers negotiate the settlement. That means if an agreement is reached, the whole group wouldn't have to reconvene for a decision.

The coalition formed last year after residents grew angry with the way Missoula County planned to levy taxes for the sewer backbone system. They were also concerned that the sewer was being built before comprehensive planning for the area between North Reserve Street and the Wye highway junction had been completed. Access to public sewer allows developers to build more homes per acre than would be allowed if only individual septic systems were available.

The draft agreement covers construction of the sewer backbone and connections to homes in four subdistricts: El Mar, Golden West, Mullan Trail and Country Crest. Other subdistricts in the area would not be connected until either the county had at least 55 percent grant subsidy funding available, 51 percent of the residents petitioned to connect or private septic system failures create a public health emergency.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com

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