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Missoula County

A proposed subdivision that would include a wastewater treatment system installed on the slopes of McCauley Butte above Target Range homes — and the individual wells that provide their drinking water — was sent back to the developer for revisions by the Missoula County Commission Thursday.

The commission didn’t outright reject the McCauley Meadows Subdivision, unlike the Community and Planning Services’ 8-0 vote in October to deny three variance requests and the subdivision itself. Instead, the commissioners voted 3-0 to table the public hearing on the project until their Nov. 29 meeting, in order to give developer Tai Tam LLC time to rethink and possibly redesign the subdivision.

“I’m very hesitant to re-engineer subdivisions on the fly,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “And while I think it’s entirely appropriate for a governing body to propose possible conditions or modifications to mitigate impacts, at this point in the process I caution us on going down the path of major re-engineering, which ought to trigger a new public process.”

Tabling the hearing also gives county staff time to look over a new preliminary subdivision plat that was dropped off Thursday morning, and only includes 16 lots for what initially was a 17-lot subdivision.

“The plat submitted today has contrary information than what’s in the application,” said Casey Drayton with Missoula County Community and Planning Services, who recommended the subdivision be denied. “The lot numbers, the lot sizes — we are looking at a plat that’s different than the background information.”

The proposal under consideration Thursday was for a residential subdivision on 28 acres near Humble Road and Ringo Drive, mainly on the flat portion of the property, but with four lots on the slopes. Some of the lots were less than 1 acre, which doesn’t conform to the county’s growth policy for the area.

“It doesn’t meet the intent or letter of the West End zoning district or neighborhood plan already approved by the commission,” said area resident Dave Loomis.

About 2.5 acres of common area would initially be managed by the homeowners’ association, but eventually leased or sold to someone for agricultural production. Irrigation water for some of the lawns would have to come from a ditch that runs through the subdivision, to comply with calculations of groundwater use by the state.

Dale McCormick, who is representing the developer, said the design is based on subdivisions across the country that try to incorporate agriculture uses with homes — something like a community garden similar to Orchard Gardens. The soils in the area are considered prime agricultural land, and it’s currently used for hay or grazing.

Wastewater from the homes would be collected and pumped uphill to four different drainfield zones, “which are designed to help reduce chances of slope failure and erosion from the effluent,” according to the county staff report. The majority of the slopes in the area are greater than 25 percent.

The drainfield required a waiver from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality that initially was denied, then conditionally approved after a resubmittal with additional information on soil stability and geotechnical investigation.

But the Missoula Valley Water Quality District expressed concern that the proposed wastewater drainfield could “lead to failure and affect down-gradient wells.”

Commissioner Jean Curtiss had plenty of concerns with the proposal, including the wastewater treatment plan.

“Everybody knows that some stuff flows downhill, and you don’t want to be below it,” Curtiss said.

County staff and area residents also voiced concerns about the amount of disruption to the native grasses and foliage that the wastewater treatment system, the homes and their access roads would have on McCauley Butte.

Target Range resident Stuart Goldberg added that the 2010 Target Range Plan designated the hillside as Parks and Open space, and it’s adjacent to 257 acres owned by him that has a conservation easement on it.

“It is simply not open space if there are ‘only’ three additional homesites built, and it is ridiculous to claim throughout the application that creating hillside lots in open space is okay because they are a minimum of three acres in size,” Goldberg wrote in a letter to the commission. “Contrary to the developer’s statement, the proposed Ponderosa Lane and the hillside lots will have a substantial negative impact on all neighboring properties by destroying open space and placing homes so that they will look like they are on top of the butte.”

His neighbor, Brett Kulina added that the property has plenty of developable level ground that is perfectly suited for homesites and septic systems.

“Instead, the proposed McCauley Meadows subdivision attempts to shoehorn in unnecessary homesites on steep rocky ground that will scar the most visible portion of this protected landmark with roads, driveways and homes,” he wrote in a letter to the commission. “Likewise, it defies common sense to pump uphill all of the sewage waste for this development.”

Curtiss said she also didn’t know who would police the properties to ensure they’re using the ditch water for their lawns instead of from their wells.

“I appreciate you want to save the property for agriculture use in the community, but you also have to recognize the community’s values,” Curtiss said. “McCauley Butte is not just important for people who look at it up close every day, but is a recognized community value we were all happy about when it got a conservation easement.”

McCormick said he was surprised by the rejection of the proposed subdivision, and wasn’t sure how his clients want to proceed. He expects to confer with them, then send a letter to the commission outlining their intentions.

“In my 20-year career, this is only the second time a subdivision (of mine) has been recommended for denial,” McCormick told the commissioners. “This process took two years and many meetings … our primary goal is to mitigate impacts.”

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