2016: an ‘interesting’ year for Central Montana

By: 
CHARLIE DENISON
Reporter

Graphic by Stephanie Prater

2016 may be remembered for “the year Lewistown almost went back to having a mayor.”

Or it could be remembered for the year City Manager Kevin Myhre stepped down.

It could also be known as the year “annexation went to court.” Or the year of the new pool, or the year road construction took over.

All this being said, it’s clear 2016 was a big year for the City of Lewistown and surrounding areas.

 

Annexation issue goes to court

In January, the City of Lewistown went to court against Landowners Rights Association representatives, who objected to the annexation of properties adjacent to Castle Butte Road, Roundhouse Road, Southland Road and Reservoir Drive.

In Court, Landowners Rights representatives complained the City was essentially “hop scotching” property for the annexation. The city argued they were following protocol under Montana’s Land Use and Planning statutes for “annexation of contiguous land.”

A number of Landowners Rights representatives spoke under oath about their frustrations with the annexation, arguing the City of Lewistown is not growing, therefore, annexation is not necessary.

“I think the City needs money and this is their way to go about getting it,” Landowners Rights co-founder Tom St. John said.

Landowners Rights Association filed suit against the City of Lewistown in the fall of 2015. Annexation took place as scheduled shortly after the suit was filed. Judge Brenda Gilbert denied the LRA’s request for a temporary restraining order in late February.

On Monday, June 19, Judge Gilbert’s ruling was filed in Montana Tenth Judicial District Court, siding with the City. In her decision and order, Gilbert addressed several legal points raised by property owners.

With regard to whether or not the annexation was in the best interest of the inhabitants, the judge cited several court rulings which left that decision in the hands of the city council.”

It was also noted that Gilbert “found precedent showing the City was within its rights with regard to how the [waivers of consent] were handled.” Gilbert sided with the City on all claims.

 

A tight race: existing form wins

In May, after much controversy, the Lewistown Government Study Commission voted to “let the people choose” and put another form of government on the ballot for the November election. People could vote “for adoption of the commission mayor charter plan of government proposed for the City of Lewistown by the majority of the Lewistown Local Government Review Study Commission to be effective Jan. 2, 2018” or “for the existing commission-manager form of government.”

In November, voter turnout indicated the community was indeed divided, as the vote to keep a manager or switch to mayor was so close a recount was requested. Official results had the existing form of government ahead of a mayor//chief administrative officer/council form of government by eight votes: 1,317 to 1,309.

 

City Manager Kevin Myhre resigns after 14 years

In January of 2016, Myhre proclaimed this would be “an interesting year,” but the people of Lewistown  – Myhre included – had no idea just how interesting. Myhre’s resignation went into effect July 1. At the June 6 City Commission meeting, Public Works Director Holly Phelps was appointed as interim City Manager. Myhre originally announced his resignation in April. He went on to take a position working for Century Companies.

 

Newly rehabilitated pool opens

In mid-June, Lewistown Parks and Recreation Director Jim Daniels announced the grand opening of the newly rehabilitated Lewistown City Pool at Frank Day Park. The new and improved “Lewistown Aquatic Complex” (which Daniels called “an attraction”) features top-of-the-line slides, a splash park, a deeper, smoother pool and other features. The pool makeover was made possible by the City of Lewistown and Fergus County working together to establish a Recreation District, which helped significantly in raising the $3 million needed. The community also stepped up, as the Save Our Swimming Capital Campaign raised $1.33 million in a grassroots effort.

 

Ackley Lake: State park no more?

In July, it was announced the 250-acre Ackley Lake State Park may no longer be a Montana State Park, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 4 Park Manager John Taillie.

“State Parks is struggling to provide staffing and funding for all the parks,” he said. “We have a funding challenge. We need to defer funding from lower class parks to higher class parks, in order to manage them well.”

FWP does not own the Ackley Lake property; they lease it from the Department of Natural Resource Conservation. Taillie said turning the park back to DNRC to manage would be the “logical course of action.”

DNRC representative Kevin Smith said, if the lease with State Parks were to end, there would be no overnight camping and there would need to be “negotiations over how to handle the facilities, including campsites, picnic tables, shelters and toilets.”

An Ackley Lake Study Board was formed and is currently exploring possibilities, including a new leaseholder, who would continue to run the camping and recreation facilities.

 

Machler project no longer just a dream

After more than a decade of piecing funding together, this July saw the first work begin on what is locally known as the “Machler project,” an effort to re-meander and naturalize more than 2,500 feet of Spring Creek north of Lewistown.

In 1960 that section of the creek was straightened and channelized to make room for a mobile home park housing Minuteman missile installation workers. More recently the negative impacts of stream channeling became clear, including increased flooding and erosion and loss of aquatic habitat.

Multiple groups joined the effort to find over $1 million necessary to repair the damage, including Trout Unlimited, the Big Spring Creek Watershed Commission, Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and others.

Mark Machler, son and nephew of the two Machlers who originally straightened the creek, was on hand on July 7 for the project’s ground breaking. On that day Mark fired up the original 1945 Caterpillar tractor used to straighten the creek, and the restoration was underway. Monte Weeden of MK Weeden Construction won the bid. The completed project includes stabilizing the newly winding creek with boulders and native plants, as well as installing trails and bridges.

 

The American Prairie Reserve Purchases the PN Ranch

On Friday, May 6, the sale of the 50,000-acre PN ranch near Winifred was made final. The buyer and new owner is the American Prairie Reserve, which adds the PN ranch property to its other Montana holdings, now totaling over 350,000 acres. The APR's stated mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental U.S. The controversial running of wild bison herds on APR properties north of the Missouri River added to the organization's announcement they would be removing cattle from the PN ranch perhaps accounted for voters' approval of a Fergus County Conservation District ordinance. The ordinance requires those who run wild, free-roaming or domestic bison to create a plan to protect soil and water, and to address bison, which wander outside of fences and boundaries. Voters approved the ordinance at the June primary and it will take effect in 2017.

 

County named in suit over Coroner’s alleged conflict of interest

Citing frustration with Fergus County commissioners’ lack of action after two years of discussion, Ralph and Kendra Mihlfeld, owners of Creel Funeral Home, filed suit over what they say is a conflict of interest with Coroner Dick Brown.

State statutes, the suit alleges, do not allow coroners to own or have interest in a funeral home unless it is the only one in the county. Brown, who owns Cloyd Funeral Home, has said he does not believe there is a conflict of interest as families are free to use whichever mortuary they like, no matter whether the death is a matter for the coroner or not.

In June the Mihlfelds, through their attorney Evan Thompson, gave the commissioners until Aug. 10 to resolve the issue or else the couple would file suit. The commissioners voted to send the question to the Community Council for input, but the council was unable to make a recommendation prior to the Aug. 10 deadline, and the suit was filed. No court date has yet been set.

 

Road construction all across town

In what could be termed a perfect storm for local drivers, at one point this year nearly every road in and out of Lewistown underwent construction simultaneously. While the end result will make for smoother travel, the process raised eyebrows, and possibly tempers, for months.

Due to unanticipated extra work required to address unacceptable paving results and a landslide into Spring Creek, work on Upper Spring Creek Road south of town did not conclude last year as planned, but carried on into 2016. Drivers competed with construction equipment as the road, also known as Highway 238, was often closed down to one lane, with flagmen and pilot cars restricting traffic.

In order to stabilize one section of slope along Spring Creek, concrete piers had to be inserted in the embankment, a process that took months to accomplish. One section of the roadway near Stendal Road is still unpaved. The contractor is DeAtley Construction out of Washington.

Work on the west end of town, including removal of the overpass and redesigning the intersection of Main Street with the Truck Bypass, seemed to go more smoothly. Along with the major roadwork, contractor Century Companies was also tasked with replacing sidewalks, curb and gutter along Main Street on the east side of town.

Another, smaller project involved creating sidewalk “bump outs,” and installing new street lights on Main Street throughout downtown.

While some work remains to finalize the west side Highway 87 project, including installation of trails, most of the roadwork is complete. Main Street’s sidewalk improvements are also finished. Drivers and business owners alike are no doubt looking forward to 2017 as a year of easier travel.

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