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Montana Oil Boom Towns Cope with RVs and Sewer Lagoon

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July 11, 2012 by   - () Leave a Comment

The city commission in Williston, N.D., made a controversial decision two weeks ago when it banned RV residents from parking on residential property.

Now, Sidney, located just across the border into Montana, isn’t exactly on par with the extraordinary growth taking place there, though this city has its own issues to deal with, the Sidney Herald Leader reported. Sidney has trailer parks; one found not up to code but was granted a temporary conditional use permit. And trailers can be found here and there, so they’re not a huge problem … at least not yet.

Could the city of Sidney head in Williston’s direction by banning RVs on residential property? Nearby Glendive, Mont., has for years.

At this point, says Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser, morally it’s not an option. “I think we have to build out first. If we enforce it now, then where will they go?” he said. Sidney is potentially looking at 1,000 new homes and apartments in the coming years. “I think in two to five years we’ll be able to look at it.”

At present, Smelser maintains the city is up against the public perception that it hadn’t prepared enough for the oil boom. “That’s not right because we’ve been after this for a long time,” he said.

The city, of course, has a lot more than RVs on its plate. A 60-day moratorium on new annexations has been up for more than a month now, and the impact fees that were supposed to have been proposed by the end of that moratorium have not come through yet.

The largest issue, however, is the $15 million sewer lagoon replacement. The county will pay for a package plant that will act as a discharge collector, taking pressure off the aging lagoon. But Smelser calls it a “band-aid fix” and has made clear the solution needs more than that.

“The package plant doesn’t do anything to help the lagoon,” he said. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has indicated it is willing to work with the city to solve the issue. There is still “disappointment,” the mayor said, knowing it needed to be fixed but not having the resources to do it.

On Tuesday, city and county leaders met with DEQ representatives to talk about the lagoon and look at the county as a whole to come up with a fix. “There’s no reason why this lagoon can’t be built for 15,000 people,” Smelser said.

He said the city expects to work with DEQ to get through next year’s legislative session as they try to acquire a revenue stream. “I can’t raise my hand now and commit to a $15 million lagoon. We don’t have the funds to fix it,” he said.

The next budget could be scary. An official one should be released by the end of the month but a preliminary budget shows its expected revenue falls short of its expenses – by a million. “It’ll be ugly,” Smelser said, “but we’ll just have to do what we can with what we have…We’ll still have to put some projects on hold even though we know that we should’ve been doing them two or three years ago.” The city already expects a $50 million shortfall in the coming years due to oil impacts.

About an hour south of Sidney, Glendive city officials are preparing to upgrade their $8-9 million lagoon next spring. After learning two years ago about the new and stricter state standards, authorities there conducted an engineering review a year and a half ago and presented recommendations to the city council. They’ll be presented a preliminary design this fall and will go to bid in the winter.

Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said the lagoon can still hold enough sewage for 10,000; it’s been able to handle new businesses and homes.

Jimison expects to pay for the multi-million project by raising the sewer rates from $16 to $26; the city began raising rates as soon as it learned that the expense was coming. That should bring in a couple million dollars ahead of construction. They’ll also go after grants and the rest financed through a rural loan fund program.

“Sidney and Glendive are working closely together to make sure to mitigate the problems we see coming down the pike, and I think both are learning from each other,” Jimison said. “I think Sidney is more impacted than we are, and we’re fortunate enough that Glendive has actually prepared itself through the last two oil booms.” Infrastructure that was built 35 years ago and was never used is now being utilized, and the city has begun to fill in subdivisions and other properties. “We’re not behind the eight ball, we’re sort of ahead of it,” Jimison said.

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