AE2S project manager Scott Buecker and WGM representative Chris Allen show meeting attendees the district boundary lines created during the previous study. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

To district or not to district

The future of canyon expansion and the fate of the Gallatin

More than 40 people gathered in the Montana Room at Buck’s T-4 on Sept. 19 for cookies, coffee and a discussion of the future of the canyon. 

A feasibility study supported by the Gallatin River Task Force is underway and being conducted by engineering consultants WGM Group and AE2S. 

 AE2S project manager Scott Buecker addressed the group, answered questions and presented information and the overall goal of the effort – protect the drinking water and the Gallatin River, protect the groundwater from nitrate contaminates, which protects property values. Buecker noted that septic tanks eventually fail. 

Attendees asked about density, water quality, details about the process of districting and funding mechanisms if canyon residents do decide to move forward with centralized water and sewer. 

There was an attempt to district in 2008, which fell flat. Buecker suggested that this effort could be the point where need meets affordability before rampant development makes the move financially impossible. In later discussion, he compared the situation to a cartoon he saw about an avocado: “Not ripe, not ripe, not ripe, too ripe!” The longer canyon residents wait, the more expensive creating a water and sewer treatment plant will become for a few reasons, including increased prices of the products/technology. 

“If we’re not successful now, I think the chances of being successful get less and less. The sooner you do it, the more affordable it is,” Buecker said. “Once all those roads are there, once all that property is tied-up, you don’t get the right of ways, the easements, the property acquisition. You’re digging up everybody’s sidewalks and asphalt and everything else – it’s expensive.”  

Canyon development is coming and one thing that Buecker said canyon residents will be able to address if they district is potential changes to density once the area has water and sewer treatment. That kind of infrastructure can present the option of greater density. The formation of a district can also create greater oversight to protect the area, Resort Tax vice chair Steve Johnson also noted. 

“[Projected growth] is high – 5-6%. That’s generally what we have done for Big Sky County Water and Sewer District (BSCWSD) is give it a healthy growth rate. When there is a boom, there is really a boom here. Up here I would be leery about going too far below that 3% growth rate,” he said. 

After Buecker answered questions from the podium, attendees split into small groups to discuss the issue with engineers, representatives from the Gallatin River Task Force and each other. 

“I like that he said that the district can be formed, but we don’t have to start a wastewater treatment plant. The formation of a district just gives us a little more clout,” longtime canyon resident Carol Collins said. “Some of us are digging our feet in – ‘I’ve got my septic. I’ve got my wells.’” 

BSCWSD Ron Edwards said in previous meetings that the effort to create a treatment plant can take as long as a decade, even if a district is already established. 

“What is the lifespan of your septic?” facilitator Karen Filipovich asked. “That might be the better question.” 

Filipovich noted that the idea behind the entire effort is not to tell canyon residents what to do, but to support them. Questions residents should be asking before entertaining the legal guidelines for forming a district include: “Does this make sense?” and “Where do we want the boundaries to be?” 

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