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Commission tables vote on casino annexation

by Lake County Leader
| July 14, 2022 12:00 AM

Asking for more information on traffic and other community impacts, the Polson City Commission last week voted to table a decision on a resolution to annex 79 acres north of the city airport that is the proposed site of a casino to be operated by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The decision to table followed more than an hour of commission discussion and public comment. Commissioner Carolyn Pardini was the sole dissenting vote. The Commission did not set a date to revisit the matter.

City staff had recommended the commission approve the resolution.

The Tribes have asked the city to extend water and sewer infrastructure to property located north of the Flathead River on the west side of U.S. 93 that they are planning to develop. The parcel includes three lakeshore lots already within city limits.

Connecting to city services would require the property to be annexed into city limits. City pipes already exist north of the U.S. 93 bridge, and a study completed last spring shows that Polson has enough capacity for continued development now and into the future, according to a city staff report.

The Tribes would be subject to the same water and wastewater fees and regulations as other city customers.

According to Janet Camel, planning director with CKST, the Tribes would move the casino out of the CSKT-managed Kwataqnuk Resort on Flathead Lake near downtown Polson and into a new casino facility at the proposed development site.

Other phases of development are “conceptual” at this point, Camel told the Commission.

“We’re just taking baby steps,” she said. “We don’t know if we’re going to build out the rest of the property.”

While the CSKT’s legal status with the federal government means the property would not be subject to city zoning code or land development requirements, as a condition of annexation the Tribes would waive the ability to petition establishment of a special improvement district, “in effect committing the participation in future public infrastructure improvements,” a city staff report notes.

Preliminary discussion regarding the creation of a “payment in lieu of taxes” agreement have taken place.

“The city is confident these efforts will result in an agreement that is satisfactory to CSKT and the city of Polson,” the staff report notes.

“CSKT demonstrates a genuine willingness to collaborate with the city of Polson on this and other matters of importance to our shared constituents in the city, county and reservation,” the staff report continues. “Based on this relationship, the administration is convinced that the city of Polson will remain an involved stakeholder on the annexed property; with a non-regulatory role.”

MUCH OF the concern brought forward at the July 6 meeting surrounded the proposed development’s impacts on U.S. 93 traffic.

Prior to the vote, City Manager Ed Meece argued that the annexation wouldn’t “make or break” the noted traffic issues in the area. He said the state Department of Transportation dictates those decisions within a 10-year plan, “and we’re not in it.”

“The only way that gets changed is with an act of politics,” he continued.

“We need to make a decision on the annexation and then continue our efforts with whatever we’re going to do on U.S. 93 and with the DOT.”

As for tabling the matter due to traffic, he said it’s an issue that isn’t likely to be worked out in a timely manner.

“If you’re going to table for that reason [traffic], we’ll work on it, but it’s not going to happen quick,” he warned.

During public comment, Rocky Point Road resident Tracy Sharp said highway infrastructure isn’t keeping pace with the area’s growth.

“Remember the bumper stickers ‘I drive 93, pray for me’ — that has not changed much,” he said.

What has changed is the volume of summer traffic traveling between Missoula and Glacier National Park.

“I’m not asking to stomp this out,” Sharp said. “But the idea to table this and bring back some answers on traffic … I think that’s really where we ought to go. Convince us this is a thumbs up.”

Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron, who also lives on Rocky Point Road, agreed that highway safety should be a priority. He said a traffic light would be a wise addition alongside the development.

State Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, pushed back on Meece’s suggestion that any sway with the DOT would take years.

“I think we need to weigh heavily on the DOT to get them to rethink their plans,” she said. “They were just handed a lot of money from the federal government.”

Other public comments centered around the city not having an environmental impact statement for the development in hand, as well as its potential impact on emergency services and crime.

“What will a new casino do for Polson other than bring on more crime, more drugs and more despair,” said Bay View Drive resident Larry Ashcraft.

In a written comment, Irvine Flats Road residents Joseph and Deborah Forthofer called casinos a “parasite to the community.”

“Studies have shown that where a casino has been built, there are higher rates of home foreclosure and domestic violence,” they stated. “Rather than helping a community, casinos do just the opposite by taking money from those who can least afford to gamble.”

A petition against the annexation submitted to the city garnered 63 signatures, including 17 city residents.

Mayor Eric Huffine told the Commission that the evening’s vote was the city’s one shot at having some leverage in the development.

Ultimately, he said the decision should come down to whether the development enhances Polson. He likes the idea of moving the casino out of the Kwataqnuk Resort, but said he had too many unanswered questions to move forward with the annexation.

“It’s just that my list is too big. I need it narrowed down,” he said.

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