By Martin J. Kidston
A large crowd attended last night's Havre City Council meeting where a unanimous vote by council members overturned an order by the City-County Planning Board to stop construction of a local subdivision.
The planning board earlier this month had denied a building permit for the Jefferson Heights Subdivision, one of the Human Resource Development Council's projects to house low-income families.
The city council opened the floor allowing those both in favor and against the Jefferson Heights Subdivision to speak. Approximately 75 people were in attendance.
Most of the people spoke in favor of HRDC's project, which would assist families through the McLaughlin Transitional Housing Program, also while providing more classrooms for the Head Start program for children.
But others, who maintained their property values would drop once low-income housing was introduced in their neighborhood, spoke in opposition to HRDC's plan to use the development for transitional housing and Head Start schooling.
"I, as a neighboring property owner, was never notified of this proposal," said Bill Swartz, one of the projects most outspoken adversaries. "I never had a clue until earth was being moved."
However, according to documents distributed by HRDC, neighboring residents like Swartz were informed of the proposal, and more than once had the opportunity to come forward. HRDC also held several public hearings before the homes were ever moved to Havre from the old radar base north of town.
The first meeting occurred Oct. 5, 1998, when the city council first heard HRDC's proposal to use radar-base housing for transitional housing. An article appeared in the Havre Dailey News the following day. Then, in January of 1999, another public hearing was conducted by the city council on HRDC's revised application to the Montana Department of Commerce.
Again, on July 19, 1999, HRDC said it personally informed the area's residents of its proposal, so as not to leave anyone out of the loop.
"Invitations were hand delivered to homes in the general vicinity of all proposed sites," HRDC said in its summary of events. "Site plans were presented and discussed. Color photos of the actual homes were distributed. A flyer describing the program implementation and operation was distributed, and a tour of the homes was planned for all those interested."
However, the question facing the city council on Monday night was not whether the area's residents were informed, but rather, if the proper procedures were followed in order to implement the subdivision.
The City-County Planning Board, which directed HRDC to stop making improvements to the Jefferson Heights Subdivision on Nov. 16, told the city council that it did so based on three facts: The current zoning at the location does not allow for multiple dwellings; concern for neighboring property owners; and a disregard for state subdivision laws.
"There is no question that the subdivision went in before it should have,"
City Attorney Jim Kaze told the audience. "The question facing the city council here is what it should do now."
Calling for a vote, the council unanimously overturned the planning board's earlier directive for HRDC to stop making improvements to the Jefferson Heights property.
"I'm glad that it's approved," said resident Judy Neely. "The housing is nice, and it will be an improvement to the neighborhood as opposed to being a detriment like some suggested."
"I think HRDC bent over backwards to do everything it could," said neighborhood resident Chris Parsons. "And just because a person has money doesn't mean they're going to maintain their property any better than someone who doesn't have money."