Approval of Alpine Trails subdivision in Seeley Lake raises questions over fire safety, sanitation

The Rice Ridge fire burns over a road near Seeley Lake. Such wildfires have raised new questions about Missoula County’s subdivision rules and who should build in area forests. (Inciweb photo)

Missoula County commissioners granted a developer’s request to build a 30-lot subdivision on 52 wooded acres in Seeley Lake this week, despite concerns over wildfire and the community’s lack of a centralized sewer system.

The project, approved Thursday evening on a 2-1 vote, touched on several hot issues facing the county as it grapples with rural subdivisions in areas lacking basic services, as well as those prone to wildfires, including this year’s Rice Ridge blaze in Seeley Lake.

That fire encroached on the planned Alpine Trails subdivision and prompted the prolonged evacuation of area residents. It also gave Commissioner Dave Strohmaier pause.

“The irony wasn’t lost on me when I was up in Seeley to look at this tract of land (Alpine Trails) when smoke was billowing up behind the subdivision and some of the roads to access the subdivision were blocked by National Guard personnel,” said Strohmaier, who voted against the subdivision.

The Alpine Trails proposal largely conforms to the county’s growth policy and received approval from both the planning board and county staff. A number of conditions were attached to mitigate fire hazards, including a defensible space agreement.

According to county documents, the subdivision received a score on the Fire Hazard Risk Assessment of 47, placing it in a category classified as a “moderate hazard.”

The classification triggers a number of requirements, including the need for water facilities, the removal of downed woody fuels, tree thinning, and maintaining a 10-foot-wide separation between tree crowns.

But in voting against the project, Strohmaier suggested that past fire modeling and mitigation steps may no longer be valid. Setting a subdivision on a hillside in a fire-prone forest could place both the public and firefighters at risk, he said.

“I think we absolutely must take into account lessons learned from the fires in Seeley Lake this summer, and even a degree of humility that our fire modeling or forward assumptions – even those in the staff report – were incorrect and erroneous,” said Strohmaier. “A lot of what we thought in the past regarding fire mitigation measures may not really hold anymore.”

While Strohmaier sought a 60-day extension to conduct a deeper risk analysis with Emergency Services, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the U.S. Forest Service, the developer’s representatives opposed it.

“It seems to be asking a lot for a 60-day review when there’s been two years to review this project and come up with a solution that works for everyone,” said Dale McCormick with Professional Consultants Inc. “There’s been ample opportunity for feedback.”

Kevin Wetherell, the project’s developer with Kikwa River Partners, also opposed the extension. The planning efforts date back 2004, he said, and have included a number of agencies and officials in what he described as an effort to seek compromise.

While Wetherell said he appreciated Strohmaier’s concerns over fire, he said the planning process had considered such concerns. He said he survived both the Jocko Lakes fire in 2007 and this year’s Rice Ridge fire, which affected the entire Seeley Lake community.

“When this project started in 2004, the Jocko Lakes fire was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and I was there – it burned to my house,” said Wetherell. “I’ve lived it both times and I understand the risks. As a developer, I’ve done what I can to mitigate it.”

Wetherell believes the Rice Ridge fire may have served to protect his new subdivision, given how the blaze torched much of the landscape around it. What’s more, he said, Seeley Lake itself sits to the west, while the town sits just to the south.

He believes Alpine Trails is surrounded by a safe fire barrier.

“To talk about mitigation, we’ve listened to and changed everything to bring everyone aboard, and everyone has had their input,” said Wetherell. “The commissioners, you rely on the planning board and these entities to give you input, and they have.”

Missoula County commissioners approved the Alpine Trails subdivision on a 2-1 vote.

Part of Strohmaier’s concerns date back to 1994 when he as working as a fire manager for the Prineville District with the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon. That year in July, he received word that a potential fire entrapment had occurred on the South Canyon fire at Storm King Mountain in Colorado.

A fax that afternoon would confirm it. It contained the Prineville crew manifest and circled nine of them. They were among the 14 firefighters killed that July at Storm King.

“At the base of the slopes of Storm King Mountain was a subdivision, not entirely unlike what we’re contemplating here, and the reason why the firefighters were on that hill was to protect the property and values at the base of the slope,” Strohmaier said.

“I take seriously this board’s responsibility to address public safety and health, which includes both firefighters and residents alike,” he added. “Simply perpetuating business as usual by allowing homes in areas likely to burn without meaningful mitigation measures, if they’re even possible, would not be responsible.”

Strohmaier also joined other commissioners in questioning the subdivision’s need for septic systems in a town already struggling with high levels of nitrates – the partial result of failing septic systems installed in the past.

Seeley Lake has twice voted against a centralized sewer system, despite the county’s efforts to secure federal grants and other funding to help pay for the project.

But the push for a centralized system is likely to continue, and commissioners asked if the developers behind Alpine Trails would consider connecting to the system and forgo the use of septic tanks.

“It pains me the thought of any additional septic systems going in up there if indeed a centralized wastewater system is going to go in,” Strohmaier said. “Admittedly, that’s up in the air at this point.”

With a centralized sewer system still uncertain, McCormick said they opted to install septic systems using new technology. Alpine Trails is currently in Seeley Lake’s water district but lies just outside the proposed sewer district.

“Because of the timing of the sewer, it led us on the path to design for the best possible septic system we could design using state-of-the-art technology,” said McCormick. “It took a lot of effort on our part to get DEQ and the City-County Health Department to be on board with the septic system we’re proposing.”

Shannon Therriault, director of environmental health with the City-County Health Department, said the developers were required to show that the addition of more septic systems would not impact Seeley Lake’s area of known nitrates.

“They were able to show using the accepted methods – and methods that aren’t required for every subdivision – that it wouldn’t impact the area of known high nitrates,” said Therriault.

“The health department is very supportive of sewer and if sewer were available, we’d definitely be encouraging them to connect,” she added. “There’s certainly nothing in our rules that would require them to connect to sewer.”