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Rest Area a hot topic at Commission Meeting

The recently constructed rest area in south Broadwater County has been a hot topic as of late, and the conversation continued during the Jan. 9 county commissioners meeting.

Elizabeth and Butch Barton approached the board during the public comment portion of the meeting, asking why the commissioners had not responded to an email sent to them on Nov. 23.

Butch Barton began his comment period explaining that he understood the commissioner weren't supposed to responded to public comments and asked that the rule be applied equally. 

"You don't answer questions, you just listen. I understand, if that's the way that is, let's make the rules equal for everybody," Butch Barton said.

He then went on to explain that the premise of the letter was to understand legally how the rest area could connect to the Targeted Economic Development District's sewer system, since it was not a value added business.

Commissioner Darrel Folkvord interrupted to tell Barton that he was incorrect and that it was legal for the rest area to do so.

"I'm answering your question. You're incorrect," Folkvord said.

Butch Barton questioned where in the Montana Code Annotated it was legal for the rest area to use the TEDD's sewer system.

"That being said, I would like you to provide me with the law that allows that to happen. Because, the law we are reading - my wife and I -says 'If it's not a value-adding business, it cannot be included in the TEDD,'" he said. "So why are we hooking up a non-value-adding business to the TEDD?"

Folkvord responded with the explanation that public safety always adds value. When Butch Barton said that the rest area would bring the opposite of safety to the area, Folkvord told him that was solely Butch Barton's opinion.

Returning to the question that their email had gone unanswered for more than a month, Butch Barton asked how they need to correspond with the commissioners. Folkvord suggested that "rather than rely on social media" that the Bartons come speak directly to the commissioners.

"There's a genuine idea," Folkvord said to Butch Barton, referring to his suggestion to visit county offices.

Elizabeth Barton, Butch's wife, had a response of her own: "You work for us. ... We shouldn't have to be coming 30-40 miles to come visit with you physically. You should be communicating."

Following the meeting, Folkvord said that members of the TEDD receive financial assistance when hooking up to the private sewer system; however, a non-member such as the rest area will have to pay the full price of hooking up to the system.

But were the rest area in the TEDD, Montana law could allow it.

The Montana Code Annotated 7-15-4278, sub-section four clarifies that the state's tax increment financing laws - which the TEDD uses to generate funds to reinvest in the geographic area in which they are derived - should be used to "encourage the creation of areas in which needed infrastructure for value-adding industries could be developed." In other words, if the rest area is determined to be needed infrastructure which will benefit value-adding  industries, its legal.

According to Lisa Olmstead, the Public Involvement Manger for DOWL - the consulting firm for MDT - moving the rest area to Broadwater County posed several benefits for the organization.

"There are a number of reason why the rest area needed to be relocated – in particular, the existing [Bozeman] facility is dated and undersized with no room for expansion. This rest area will be twice the size, increase parking, and offer many safety improvements over the former facility," she said in an email.

Additionally, the project's frequently asked questions document explains that the rest area provides all travelers with "a safe place to stop to rest."

Olmstead also clarified that DOWL and MDT were unaware of any legalities preventing them from hooking up to the local utility district. 

"We applied and were granted access," Olmstead said. "Ultimately, seems the water system will be really beneficial to that area of the county, and I understand that it was contingent on having a few preliminary users, and the rest area was one of the first."

To the Bartons, the rest area adds little to no value to the Wheatland area and in fact poses several safety threats. One of the most significant safety problems to them is the nearby school bus stops.

In response to citizens concerns for safety, Olmstead said that the state considered local safety in this project more than most others.

"One of the big wins of the rest area is that the state really did hear the public's concerns," she said, explaining that the Headwaters Rest Area will feature the first law enforcement office for the Broadwater County Sheriff's Office and the Montana Highway Patrol to use.

Overall, Olmstead said, the purpose of rest areas seems to have been forgotten. The facility will provide tired drivers with a well-lit area to park, let pets use the bathroom and, ultimately, rest.

The rest area will also provide truck drivers, who are required to rest after driving for an allotted amount of time - a place other than along the highway to park.

Although the Broadwater County commissioners became aware of the rest area project in November of 2020, it was not in their jurisdiction to approve or deny the project.

"The commission had no part in the approval or rest area process. This was done at the state level," Commissioner Lindsey Richtmyer said.

While the Barton's are unhappy with the situation in the South County - and Folkvord's decorum during their public comment period - they understand that the rest area "is here to stay." The couple said that in the future, they hope for more transparency from the county.

The Headwaters Rest Area was expected to open in the late summer of 2022; however, Olmstead said its been pushed back to this winter. Although the building is constructed, the sewer and water system is the final piece of the project, and until that project is complete, the rest area will remain closed.