By Martin J. Kidston
The Hill County Health and Planning Board became the target of a fiery public hearing Tuesday night as two separate camps aired their emotional complaints both for and against a new subdivision in Havre.
The fuss began over the zoning of a 1.44 acre plot of ground at the intersection of Wilson Ave. and 14th Street. Known as the First Light Subdivision, the plot is currently Zoned for "residential one family" use. However, the Human Resource Development Council has contracted to place three structures on the lot, two for the use as residential homes, and one for the use as a Head Start classroom. But the proposal has many of the area's residents angry at what they see as a threat to their property values and a circumnavigation of current zoning laws.
"They've gone ahead with a project that was never approved," area resident Jim Kuka said at the public hearing. "How can you build a subdivision without any approval?"
Bill Swartz, another area resident said, "If you can build a subdivision before the zoning is approved, then what good is the zoning?"
HRDC representative Diane Savasten said her agency went through the proper channels when getting permission to place the structures on the single lot.
"We have a letter dated April 7, 1999, which says 'the zoning classification shown will accommodate the single family dwellings of the type proposed,'" Savasten said. "That came directly from the director of public works, and it was authorization to move ahead with the project."
Savasten said that after gaining approval, HRDC went ahead with the project's funding, let the bids to contractors and got permission for the sewer and water hook ups from Milk River Engineering. However, Savasten said the project still wasn't in compliance with the current zoning regulations, so HRDC wrote another letter to the city, requesting that it change the lot's zoning from Residential One Family to Residential General.
"We submitted a letter to have the zoning changed on August 13, 1999," Savasten said. "It was submitted to the mayor and the Havre City Council. They wrote back and said no, they wouldn't change the zoning."
But while the city voted against changing the zoning, one month later on Oct. 5, it issued three building permits to HRDC's general contractor, Mel Shulund. The three permits gave Shulund permission to move all three structures onto the single lot, and gave HRDC permission to use them for residential purposes.
The idea that the city issued the permits after the fact has the area's residents upset. But the city, and even the contractor said that typically, such permits are issued by word under a good-faith agreement and backed up later with the proper paperwork.
But there is more to the controversy than the misinterpretation of the area's zoning and the delay in paperwork. The area's residents said they knew nothing of HRDC's plans to use the structures in accordance with the transitional housing program.
However, both HRDC and Shulund, the project's general contractor, said that isn't true, that the residents had known all along and are just now coming forward. In fact, Savasten said, the public hearing was the eighth hearing held over the last few months, and special arrangements had even been made to accommodate one of area's residents, who has a tool shed sitting in the project's right of way.