Seeley Lake resident appears in Missoula court to stop $15M sewer project

Donald Larson, a 40-year resident of Seeley Lake, argued Tuesday in Missoula District Court that a sewer project planned for the community should be stopped. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A District Court judge will determine whether a Seeley Lake resident has met the threshold needed to stop the Seeley Lake Sewer District from moving forward with a sewer project planned for the small community.

Donald Larson, a 40-year resident of Seeley Lake, argued Tuesday in Missoula District Court that the project should be delayed until a number of underlying questions are answered, including the system’s total cost and what he sees as the real threat to the area’s water quality.

The county is named as a witness in the case and delaying the project could risk the $9.2 million in grants secured for the project. Larson is looking to stop the district from accepting those grants. The project’s first phase, estimated at $15 million, includes building a treatment plant.

Larson is asking the county to look for less expensive alternatives, saying the residents of Seeley Lake can’t afford the difference between the grants and the system’s larger costs.

“What we are balancing is whether these grants we might lose and never get back are enough to make up for the fact that the remainder of the sewer is going to be paid for by 400 people in order to save the lake and whatever it is we don’t know needs saving,” said Larson’s attorney, Colleen Dowdall.

“Once they sign these documents, they are bound to proceed with this project,” she added. “And they will have to pay for it by whatever isn’t covered by grants. There’s no going back. Once it happens, it’s done.”

Larson, who took the stand for roughly 20 minutes, has run a bar and restaurant and a dock business in Seeley Lake. He said the test wells used to establish a local health emergency were too few in number and improperly placed.

The wells showed high levels of nitrates, though he questioned the findings, calling them a snapshot in time and a false indicator of the alleged health threat. Rather, he said, the problem stems from a number of septic systems leaking from lakefront properties.

“Many are cesspools,” Larson said. “The irony is, these folks are high-income folks who could well afford to upgrade their septic system and do the lake a favor. They have not elected to, and the health department has never had the backbone to go in there and force those folks to clean up their septic waste along the lake.”

The Seeley Lake Sewer District is divided into districts. The first phase of the municipal sewer project would build the treatment plant and connect properties in one district to the system. The other districts would come on line in subsequent years as the system is expanded.

Larson believes the system is too expensive and will serve as a cost burden to the properties represented in the sewer district. He urged the county to seek cheaper alternatives, such as a septic monitoring and replacement program.

“It’s going to be tacked onto a water bill that’s exorbitant in Seeley Lake,” Larson said. “You tack on a $150 sewer bill on top of that and what do you have? You have a flight out of the district. People will flee that district because they can’t afford to stay.”

Attorneys representing the Sewer District and Missoula County disputed many of Larson’s statements, saying he wasn’t established as a witness on any particular issue and was speaking from speculation and fear.

Larson admitted to a water quality issue and can’t alone represent the entire Seeley Lake community, they said. The protest period, the application of grants and the public hearings involved in the process over the past few years followed the letter of the law, the attorney’s added, leaving Larson with no standing to stop the project from moving forward.

“It’s Mr. Larson’s burden to prove there will be irreparable harm if the court doesn’t enjoin this project,” said John Hart, a lead deputy county attorney. “It’s not enough for him to say he’s representing the entire community. His irreparable harm has to be personal to him.”

While Dowdall intended to offer two additional witnesses as Tuesday’s hearing, including Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss and public works director Greg Robertson, neither took the stand.

District Judge Karen Townsend recessed to determine if Larson had met the requirements needed to continue the hearing. As it stood, the court seemed doubtful.

“The basis for an injunction is there’s going to be irreparable harm,” Townsend said. “I haven’t heard one word about that.”

Townsend is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.