A developer wants to shift some property on the former Smurfit-Stone mill site in Frenchtown, but Missoula County commissioners have decided to go slow.
The Missoula County commission has put a short hold on a request to relocate some property boundary lines within the Smurfit-Stone property while they check their responsibility with legal staff. The commission held a public meeting on Thursday afternoon to allow people to comment on the proposal, but then had questions about how much of the information was pertinent to their ruling.
MLH Montana, a subsidiary of Wakefield-Kennedy and the new owner of part of the Smurfit-Stone property, requested that a few boundary lines be relocated among five parcels. Some questioned whether the relocations would allow MLH Montana to develop the property more easily than if it had to go through a more in-depth county subdivision review.
County planner Matt Heimel said the request appeared to be legal based upon the few things he was required to check, namely whether the total number of tracts would increase, which it doesn’t.
“There does not appear to be an attempt to evade subdivision review. With that, staff is recommending that the (request) be approved,” Heimel said.
Representatives from WGM Group, who are working for MLH Montana, said some of the boundary relocations were intended to eliminate encroachment on adjacent farm property. They also said the plan was to dig a gravel pit on one of the parcels, although the pit had yet to get a Department of Environmental Quality permit or county approval.
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier asked the purpose of the other boundary relocations but no one could answer.
The proposed gravel pit had several people concerned about effects on groundwater and spreading contamination, since the Smurfit-Stone property is a Superfund site that still hasn’t received a risk assessment.
Missoula Valley Water Quality District manager Travis Ross questioned why the boundary lines needed to be relocated before a few studies were completed, such as groundwater modeling and a floodplain revision.
“We want to get things on the record that could create problems down the road,” Ross said. “This highlights the need of planning for this site and a vision and a thorough investigation at the same time. We’re seeing these projects come up. Addressing these piecemeal is difficult.”
Commissioner Josh Slotkin grew concerned that maybe the commission’s only duty was to approve or disapprove the boundary relocation, so too many concerns were being brought into the mix.
But Strohmaier pointed out that the gravel pit could be dug without the boundary lines being changed so he wondered what the hidden intent was.
Kirk Atkins of WGM Group said one of the boundary relocations would keep all the groundwater wells together on one piece of MLH property. But he didn’t have a clear plan of what they were going to do.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have some say in the Superfund cleanup at Smurfit-Stone, so the tribes were one of the groups that requested a public meeting on the boundary line relocation. CSKT representative Mary Price said the mill site isn’t just a regular piece of property, so any site changes should wait until the groundwater modeling is complete in a month or two.
“We know there are contaminants being released into the groundwater pathway,” Price said. “This is an important piece of information. We need to understand it better. We don’t know enough yet. We could end up in a place that we don’t want to be at. This is such a unique property given the Superfund status of the site.”
Slotnik said the commission’s decision couldn’t wait a month. But he proposed a two-week timeout while the commissioners checked if environmental factors could play a role.
“My concern is if we deny this based on the potential dangers of future uses, we will have colored outside the lines of the law, which don’t mention future use in the description of why a boundary line adjustment should be approved or not approved. But I really don’t want to make a mistake,” Slotnik said.
The commission voted to keep the hearing open and take the issue up at its June 11 meeting.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.