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Bids to be awarded

Sewer pipes are cleared to go down Mullan Road since the Missoula County commissioners and Mullan Road Coalition agreed to settle their lawsuit Tuesday.

"We've reviewed the final version, and the coalition officers have given their OK," Mullan Road Coalition attorney Trent Baker said Tuesday afternoon. "This will mark the resolution of the lawsuit."

The commissioners approved the settlement Tuesday morning. Assuming there are no legal loose ends, they expect to award bids on the $6.4 million project at their regular public meeting Wednesday.

The final negotiations teetered on a coalition request to cover $22,500 of their attorney's fees for bringing the lawsuit in January. The coalition originally requested $45,000, according to Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt. The commissioners were willing to pay $20,000 but not more.

In an administrative meeting Monday, Sehestedt recommended paying the final requested amount.

"The fact is the project came in close to $1 million under the engineer's estimate," Sehestedt said Monday. "I don't believe we'll ever be able to do that well again.

"This may be the most significant planning objective in the history of the county," Sehestedt added. "This is going to shape the future of Missoula. It's not just the sewer, but the road grid right-of-ways associated with it."

The sewer plan would bring public wastewater treatment to about 1,000 homes in roughly 2,000 acres of rural area west of North Reserve Street. However, the county also acquired much of the land needed to build new through-streets through the area while getting sewer line easements.

"We got a long way toward implementing a solution to some of the traffic problems out there on Mullan and Reserve," Sehestedt said Tuesday. "They need relief now, and if there's any more growth, it could become really difficult."

That potential for growth was one of the main concerns for coalition members. They objected to the county's failure to complete a comprehensive plan for the area before beginning the sewer project. Access to public sewer allows developers to put many more homes on an acre of ground than would be allowed by individual septic systems.

Coalition President Vicky Bostick said Tuesday afternoon the coalition planned to continue monitoring development in the area.

"We will actively work toward efforts with Wye-Mullan Plan, which is still not finished, and affects zoning density and environmental concerns," Bostick said. Members are also concerned about how future sewer subdistricts might be laid out and what costs would be applied to them.

The county was concerned about the potential for major failures of community sewage systems at the El Mar and Golden West subdivisions. Those two neighborhoods make up the bulk of the existing residents in the Mullan Road area.

As part of the settlement, the county agreed to limit its project to the El Mar, Golden West, Mullan Trail and Country Crest subdivisions.

Although the sewer backbone will serve a much larger area, other neighborhoods won't be hooked up until one of three conditions are met. There either must be enough government subsidy to cover 55 percent of the construction cost, 51 percent of the subdivision's residents must petition the county for connections, or a serious failure of individual septic systems before those areas would be affected.

Mullan Road opponents sued last June, claiming they were given misleading information about project costs, received inadequate or improper notice about the project and that the county had failed to finish some of its planning responsibilities before moving forward.

"We were concerned with the vague situation over costs," Bostick said. "We wanted them (Missoula County) to slow down and get a better idea what it would cost each homeowner. My personal household was quoted $32,000 as a high end (cost estimate)."

Most of those issues were thrown out of court in February. At the same time, the commissioners received word of major federal subsidies for the project. In April, bids for the project came in at $6.4 million - more than $1 million below the expected cost.

That put heavy pressure on the commissioners to settle the suit. The deadline to open bids is May 23. Failure to meet that means the county would either have to pay $200,000 for a bid extension, or throw out the whole project and re-bid.

The negotiating over attorney's fees angered Commissioner Jean Curtiss. She said Monday she believed the Mullan Road Coalition case would lose in court, and the money demand was an unfair way to get extra taxpayer dollars to a losing cause.

But Commission Chairman Bill Carey agreed with Sehestedt that the benefit to the whole district, in low construction costs and public health, outweighed the extra $2,500 request.

On Tuesday, Carey and Commissioner Barbara Evans voted to accept the settlement with the $22,500 amount. Curtiss voted no.

Sehestedt then walked the agreement over to coalition attorney Baker, who had authority to sign if that condition was met.

"We went back and forth on this thing quite some time," Baker said. "There are issues that both sides compromised on. They've been pretty antagonistic in these proceedings. I hope the county and these residents will work together and listen to each other."

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

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