Board splits over concern for future water and sewer capacity
By Bella Butler EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – The Big Sky County Water and Sewer board on Aug. 24 moved closer to annexing the forthcoming RiverView workforce housing project into the local water and sewer district. Moved to its second reading by means of a 4-3 vote, the latest of three ordinances would also grant the project water and sewer hookups no later than Aug. 1, 2023.
Though the vote advanced the ordinance to its second and possibly final reading, board members on either side of the decision struggled to come to their own conclusions.
“We’re representing everyone’s interests well and it’s a really good, balanced board,” said board member Brian Wheeler after the meeting. “I can’t remember … the last time we had a split decision.”
RiverView is an affordable housing project brought forth through a partnership between the Big Sky Community Housing Trust and Lone Mountain Land Company, a regional development arm of CrossHarbor Capital Partners.
The development would create 100 deed-restricted units available to employees working full time within the Big Sky Resort Area District boundary. Twenty-five of these units would be owned the housing trust and 75 would be owned by LMLC. The housing trust and LMLC will seek one SFE per unit.
Since June, the board has voted on three different versions of an annexation ordinance, which has been amended twice in an attempt to find common ground between the housing trust’s needs and the board’s concerns.
The housing trust in April applied for a 9 percent Low Income Housing Tax Credit award to fund most of its 25 units, which if received would come with the contingency that the project be online within a certain period after receiving the funds. On the other hand, the board has been worried that if hookups are committed to the development before the first phase of their in-progress plant upgrade is finished and capacity is increased, service to current ratepayers seeking hookups down the road could be compromised.
In what would have been the second and possibly final reading of the ordinance at an Aug. 24 meeting, the district’s legal counsel, Susan Swimley, informed the board that the motion made at their July 20 meeting did not include mention of the guaranteed 25 SFEs the housing trust’s portion of the project would require. If the board wanted to include this, it would add new language to the ordinance and kick it back to a third first reading.
The housing trust proposed prior to the Aug. 24 meeting that it would not seek hookups until Phase 1 of the plant expansion is completed—district Executive Director Ron Edwards estimated completion in the first half of 2023—or until Aug. 1, 2023, if Phase 1 of the expansion has not been completed.
The board debated this condition for an hour over concern for capacity should the expansion not be done by Aug. 1, 2023, when the project would hook up. A graph prepared by Scott Buecker with AE2S Engineering showed projected capacity by 2023 based on various growth scenarios.
According to the graph, if the hookup demand continues its current growth rate of 4 percent, the district will likely reach full capacity by late summer 2023. If the growth rate increases by 1 or 2 percent, the timeline moves up to between February and April 2023.
Board member Peter Manka made a motion to annex the property in and immediately grant the development 25 SFEs with the understanding that the housing trust would not seek them until completion of the Phase 1 plant expansion or until Aug. 1, 2023. Manka included in his motion that if the trust did not receive LIHTC funding, it would surrender the SFEs back to the district.
When the vote was called, board members Dick Fast and Bill Shropshire along with board president Tom Reeves voted against the ordinance, while Manka, Mike DuCuennois, Brian Wheeler and Mike Wilcynski voted in favor.
Though the vote was split, most board members later told EBS that the decision was incredibly difficult.
Fast, Shropshire and Reeves each said that too much uncertainty surrounds future capacity to commit the 25 SFEs to the housing trust with the possibility that the plant expansion will not be completed.
“I think now more than ever … we’re facing a lot of uncertainties with supplies and other things with all the building going on,” Fast, who voted against the ordinance in July as well, told EBS after the meeting. He added that the plant contractor has already issued some delays, which Edwards confirmed.
“We’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, and I think that there’s just enough uncertainty in this that I don’t want us to commit to something that we can’t honor down the road,” Fast said.
Fast, who’s served on the board for nearly 18 years, said this is one of the toughest decisions he’s had to make. “Those of us who voted against this were put in a not-great position that we had to vote against affordable housing which the community wants,” Reeves said, “and that’s a difficult vote for us.”
Housing trust Executive Director Laura Seyfang told EBS that she was pleased with the outcome of the vote, though she would feel more confident going into the September meeting had it not been so close.
“None of us can see exactly what’s going to happen, but at some point you make a commitment to the life of this community,” she said. “And it was frustrating to me that not everyone could see it from that perspective.”
Manka, Wheeler and DuCuennois said that the projected capacity data provided by Buecker tipped their decisions in favor of the ordinance. That, they said, and the overwhelming need for workforce housing.
“I just felt like the potential benefits for the community really kind of swayed my decision,” Manka told EBS. “We desperately need some solutions to this workforce housing crisis.”
The board will vote again on the second reading of the ordinance at its Sept. 21 meeting.