County CDBG needs: Belt drafting first growth policy, zoning regulations; Eden Community Hall in need of repairs
Dilapidated housing, economic development, zoning regulations and repairs to a community center were the needs mentioned during a Community Development Block Grant hearing with the Cascade County Commission on May 22.
Under the state’s CDBG program, Cascade County can have one open project in each of these three categories: public facilities, housing and economic development.
Currently, there are no open projects for Cascade County, but there may be a housing project opening when the South Wind Water District project reaches completion at the end of this calendar year.
The county is also eligible for projects under economic development and planning funds through the state’s CDBG program.
Tuesday’s hearing was an opportunity for the public to tell commissioners about potential priority projects that might qualify for future CDBG funds.
Jill Lorang asked commissioners to consider repairs to the Eden Community Hall.
The Eden community is rural and unique, Lorang said.
“We depend on each other,” she said.
The hall itself hasn’t changed much and is in need of new siding and a roof.
They’re planning a 100 year celebration in 2019 and want the hall to be showcased, Lorang said.
Commissioner Jane Weber asked if they had approached the city-county Historic Preservation Advisory Commission and Lorang said they had applied for a grant this spring.
Lorang said the hall is regularly used and gets some funding through the community water station at the hall. Proceeds from the station have funded new windows and doors.
Commissioner Jim Larson asked if there was more work to be done at the hall.
Lorang said it would be nice to have indoor plumbing, but for right now, they’re just focused on siding and a roof.
Belt Mayor Jim Olson came to the meeting with four priorities out of the town of about 600 people.
His first priority is seeking technical help for developing zoning regulations.
Early this year, the town council developed a strategic plan and has created a zoning board.
Olson asked the commission to consider CDBG funding so could hire a consultant to help draft zoning regulations.
Another priority for Belt is sidewalks, Olson said, since most areas don’t have sidewalks and the existing sidewalks are deteriorating, causing safety hazards.
Olson’s third priority is paving roads since some areas of Belt still have dirt roads that flood in lower-income areas.
His fourth priority is demolishing dilapidated homes that are no longer habitable. Olson said locals don’t have the resources to demolish the homes and they are becoming hazards.
Commissioner Joe Briggs asked if Olson wanted to rebuild the homes or if people were living in them.
Olson said the immediate priority is to remove the hazard and that most of the houses are vacant.
“Some of them are just falling apart,” Olson said.
Mary Embleton, county budget officer, said there are planning grants available that might work for Olson’s first priority of developing zoning guidelines.
In an interview with The Electric, Olson said town officials were advised by Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority, their insurance agent, to hire a consultant to develop the zoning regulations.
“We have neither the expertise or the ability to come up with anything meaningful,” Olson said.
The look at zoning a growth plan grew out of the announcement that the Madison Food Park would be locating between the town and Great Falls.
“We realized we could grow so quickly,” Olson told The Electric.
Town leaders started asking how that kind of growth would impact Belt’s infrastructure and development.
In January, the town council started work on a strategic plan. That document was finished in March and now the town has established a zoning board and is now working on the town’s growth policy.
Olson and his wife both served in the Air Force and both had worked on strategic plans during their military careers.
Olson said that’s part of what led them to realize Belt didn’t have a strategic plan and that Belt was growing around itself.
Some of the focused attention on how Belt operates came out of the 2014 election when voters approved a government review. Montana law requires that municipalities put the question to voters of whether their form of government should be reviewed.
After several months of meeting for three-hour blocks, the Belt town council created a strategic plan that includes key focus areas: creating a community that is clean and safe, maintaining infrastructure while providing for economic development and tourism.
Olson said the town had attempted to create a growth policy in the past, but no such document had ever been completed.
“We needed a vision, or a plan, to make that happen,” Olson said.
The strategic plan includes goals to accomplish over the next 5-7 years; objectives for items to accomplish over the next year and action items for how they’re going to accomplish those objectives and goals, Olson said.
The town has a full-time clerk/treasurer and a full-time city works manager. There’s another person who works full-time spring through fall but part-time during the winter. Council members are volunteers.
To help inform the Belt community about the strategic plan, growth policy and upcoming zoning project, among other items, Olson holds a “Coffee and Expectations” session on Mondays and the Belt senior center.
Those sessions typically last one and a half to two hours and Olson takes notes and explains why things are happening when possible.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of communication,” Olson said. “There’s a lot happening in a small town.”
County Commissioner Jim Larson has attended and Commissioner Jane Weber is scheduled to attend the June 4 session, Olson said.
The strategic plan and growth policy will allow the town to apply for grants, Olson said, but more importantly, help the town grow well.
The Belt downtown may be small, but “this is the only downtown we have,” Olson said.
Without zoning rules, there could be house or commercial construction in the downtown that creates incompatible uses.
“It could go wrong quickly,” he said.
The town was incorporated in 1907, but had been around about 30 years beforehand. It was a mining town, “a sort of rough area,” with 5,000 to 6,000 people, Olson said.
It’s small now, but they still want to meet building codes and maintain safe infrastructure, Olson said.
The strategic planning process has forced town leaders to prioritize.
“If it’s not in the strategic plan, do we really need to pay for it? It always comes down to whether it’s part of the strategic plan,” Olson said.
Recently, there have been three major construction projects in Belt to include the recently restored Belt Theater and a coffee shop that had fallen into disrepair.
More projects are coming, Olson said, and the town wants to make sure it’s controlled development.
“How do we step out smartly,” Olson said. “It allows everyone to have a common expectation.”
Subdivisions have been developing and the town has been asking, how do we enforce water and sewer, streets and public safety, Olson said.
Zoning can get complicated and “we don’t really want that,” Olson said. “We don’t want to be Great Falls.”
But, they want to continue being the premier bedroom community of Great Falls, he said.
Whether the Madison Food Park project goes through or something else comes to the area, “the county is changing,” Olson said. “It’s an area of growth. While none of us like change, it’s happening. How do you keep Belt Belt while still posturing to grow?”