Big Sky County Water and Sewer District board member Brian Wheeler said the Dec. 18 meeting as the most important meeting in the last 25 years for Big Sky. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

A plan to ease the pressure

Strategic effort to confront community issues centers around wastewater treatment plant

A bold move for legislation, years of effort and countless meetings. Now, some community members believe they have a plan to help Big Sky find some breathing room.


“It was probably the most pivotal meeting I’ve attended in 25 years,” Big Sky County Water and Sewer District (BSCSD) board member Brian Wheeler said.


The groundwork


Pressure has been mounting. The growth of tourism has placed the community squarely within a vice: a workforce housing crisis, the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District (BSCWSD) wastewater treatment plant nearly to capacity, the canyon being the next likely step for high density development suitable for workforce housing, but with concerning proximity to the Gallatin River and with no centralized treatment – rather a motley collection of septic systems.


Seeing the approaching urgency, Big Sky Resort Area District (Resort Tax) mobilized well over a year ago and was the driving force behind an effort from which all resort tax districts in the state stand to benefit: a 1% increase of the resort tax threshold from 3-4%. That additional 1% is project specific, requires voter approval and sunsets at the end of the project. It saw bipartisan support in the legislature and passed by a solid margin.


The historical reasoning for the creation of Resort Tax was to help high tourism, low population communities like Big Sky, Red Lodge, West Yellowstone and Virginia City navigate infrastructure demands placed on them by tourism – passing some of the cost to the visitors helping generate the need.


Voters in Virginia City and West Yellowstone have already initiated their 1% for infrastructure.


“Coming to fruition is the legislation for 1%.  That was a big effort and now this community is actually contemplating putting this to work,” Resort Tax chairman Kevin Germain said.


The plan


The water and sewer district asked Resort Tax for help in funding its $35 million proposed wastewater treatment plant upgrade. A subcommittee was created with two representatives from each board: Resort Tax vice chair Steve Johnson, chairman Kevin Germain and BSCWSD vice president Tom Reeves and board member Mike DuCuennois. Four meetings later, they had a plan.


Resort Tax would go for the project specific 1% that would require voter approval.

Resort Tax board members wanted to ensure that the expenditure of Resort Tax dollars would benefit as many people in their district as possible, Germain explained. Sixty became the magic number.


“Approximately 60% of the Resort Tax revenue is generated within the boundaries of the BSCWSD, and approximately 60% of the registered voters of the Resort Tax District reside within the boundaries of the BSCWSD, therefore, the commitment from the Resort Tax Board to fund 60% of the [wastewater treatment plant upgrade] project cost is logical and defendable,” the joint committee recommendation stated.


The negotiation


The money has strings attached that confront the other pressing issues of the community: the capacity for 500 single family equivalents (SFEs) or the usual water usage by a standard family would be committed to deed-restricted affordable housing.


Laura Seyfang, director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, the driving force behind deed restricted affordable housing efforts in the community, said this has been the missing puzzle piece that she has needed to get things rolling and confront the housing crisis. She is appreciative of all the work that went into the proposal by the subcommittee “to find a solution that both sides think will be beneficial to the community’s needs.”


Also, Resort Tax will be applied to fund 100% for a lift station near the intersection of Hwy. 191 and Hwy 64 and two pipelines. Of those pipelines, one would serve as a wastewater forcemain bringing grey water from the Canyon Area up the 64 corridor to the [treatment facility] and the second would be a pipeline to bring “highly treated effluent to the Canyon Area for groundwater discharge/recharge/disposal,” according to the recommendation.


Guy Alsentzer, founder and executive director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, spoke at the meeting and said he is cringing on behalf of the conservation community at the idea of a pipeline. He cautioned against any moves until the canyon groundwater study currently underway is completed.


Take me to your leaders – the potential for a canyon water and sewer district


With numerous meetings regarding the state of the canyon water situation one stark reality continually surfaced: clear community concern, but no official leadership.

The introduction of funding for canyon infrastructure would pave the way for future development and a canyon water and sewer district may soon be born, according to Seyfang.


Four major players stepped-up in support of such a move – all with significant interest and investment in the canyon: Lazy J’s, Bucks T-4, the Quarry project and John Romney.


“If those four guys can agree to do it, that’s where the majority of development is going to happen in the near future anyway,” Seyfang said.


Clearly voiced community need


Describing the effort as exciting and collaborative, Germain said that the proposal confronts the major issues voiced by the community in the Community Vision and Strategic Planning process: affordable housing, infrastructure improvement, and protecting water resources.


“Going to a state of the art water treatment plant, how can you argue against that? We are going to treat our wastewater to the highest level and getting the canyon off of septic will help improve our the water quality of the Gallatin,” Germain said.


Seyfang agreed by saying that the proposed potential agreement is heading in the right direction and opens up opportunities “while still protecting the environment and this beautiful place where we live.”


“You have to put together a framework of an idea, nobody here wants to be polluting that river and of course we are not going to be going forward with anything that is going to be a problem,” she said.


How it will play out


The proposal has to be approved by both the BSCWSD board and Resort Tax board to move forward and eventually be put to a vote of the people.


BSCWSD board member William Shropshire moved to ratify the proposal from the sub committee’s recommendation at the Dec. 18 BSCWSD board meeting. Board member Peter Manka seconded and the board approved it unanimously.


Resort Tax regional manager Daniel Bierschwale said the proposal now moves forward as an official application with Resort Tax and will go before the Resort Tax board during the January 7 meeting.


Resort Tax board approval would require another vote to create a board resolution to move the effort to a ballot.


The tedious work of ballot and notice language would begin. The last day for the Resort Tax board to pass a resolution to get it on the ballot would be Feb. 10 – the 85 day deadline before the election, with the final decision being made by the voters, likely in May.


Germain described it as “good, elegant use of the money.”


“If Resort Tax wasn’t helping on this it would be 100% paid for by property tax and sewer rates,” he said, noting that this is a move that stands to benefit the entire community.

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