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Residents split over road improvements in Helena's North Hills

Posted at 7:23 AM, Nov 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-20 12:12:30-05

When fire fighters raced to the north hills fire last July they encountered an obstacle: road conditions in the area.

“We had to stay further and further away from the fire because we couldn’t run from the fire," said Tri-Lakes fire chief Bob Drake. "I mean you can’t run from a fire at two miles per hour on these roads. The roads really limited some of our options in fighting the fire."

Legacy roads like Timber Trail and sections of Snowdrift were not built to any known county standard and are not currently county maintained. Some have developed deep ruts that can damage fire trucks.

“I don’t know about the other departments," said Drake. "In our department we probably spent $2,500 between those things and that doesn’t count the wear and tear that’s still sitting there that hasn’t been addressed yet because it didn’t break.”

Drake and others say the deteriorating surfaces create safety issues for emergency workers.

“We’re running down roads like this", added Drake. Well, how do you run from a fire at two miles per hour."

Some residents agree. Joe Paratore says his road was so bad when he moved he couldn’t get an insurance company to cover his property.

“They noticed the damage to the roadway and were concerned about being able to protect the house from fire," said Paratore. "I actually spent 33-hundred dollars of my own money and hired a local gravel company to come in and dump 450 yards of inch and a half rock on the roadway.”

But not everyone feels the same way.

“We want the roads up here left alone,” said Timber Trail resident George Frost

“Everybody goes to work every day. Everybody picks their kids up from school every day and nobody’s had a problem," says Frost

Frost says he has been in contact with Lewis and Clark County, which has looked into a Rural Improvement District to repair the roads.

"They explained everything," Frost said. "Taxes could go up anywhere between 300 and 1500 dollars a year. And once they go up with these RID’s they never go down.”

He says he the problem is limited to just a few roads, like Snowdrift, and he and other resident’s don’t have the money to bring the roads up to the minimum county standard.

Chief Drake agrees the cost is steep, but says there could be an option to make the roads passable without meeting the minimum standard.

"We need a lower standard for these legacy roads so that we can make some progress on them over time and bring them up to something that’s passable for an ambulance and fire truck," Drake added.

Residents like Paratore just want something done to improve access for emergency workers.

"Fill in any major pot-holes and keep it to a point where people can get in and out of here to provide us with fire protection and police protection,” said Joe.

But for Frost and others in the area it boils down to money.

“We don’t want to subsidize Snowdrift with our taxes to pay for their road," said Frost. "We take care of our own over here. Plowing and keeping it graded with tractors or whatever. So we don’t feel its necessary for our taxes to go up for somewhere else.”

Rural Improvement Districts are almost exclusively citizen-initiated according to the county. That means for anything to move forward all the residents affected will have a chance to voice their opinion.