(See related story on record snowfalls in November & December, 1996.)
by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
January 23, 1997
People in charge of plowing roads in Seeley Lake this winter are confirming what meteorologists already knew: it's been a record year for snowfall. Both Missoula County and the Double Arrow Ranch Landowners Association (DARLOA) have been shelling out record amounts of money to keep local roads passable.
DARLOA started on a new fiscal year budget on December 1, 1996. Barely five weeks into the new year, they've almost drained the snowplowing account.
The homeowners association, which oversees maintenance of about 30 miles of roads on the 840-lot subdivision south of Seeley Lake, budgeted $14,000 for snowplowing for the current fiscal year. In December alone they spent $12,500. Men and equipment worked to clear roads on 26 out of 31 days last month, according to Will Owens, president of the association.
Last year, DARLOA exceeded their snowplowing budget by about $17,000, thanks to the heavy snow in November and icy conditions a year ago that called for above average sanding of roads.
In previous years, the association had carried a surplus in their winter account, and they used those funds to cover the extra spending last year. However, this winter could pose a financial challenge.
"We made the decision to maintain roads in the best shape we could," Owens explained. The association, he said, will continue to pay the current contractor to keep roads clear every time it snows. Homeowners will just have to wait until winter is over to assess the total financial costs, and determine where the money will come from to cover any budget overruns.
The Seeley Lake area received more than 14 feet of snow in the six weeks between mid-November and the end of December. It snowed every day except two during that time period. Crews on the Double Arrow Ranch have worked 16- and 20-hour days to keep up with the white stuff.
"We've survived, but it's been a real struggle," according to Jim Kyle, chairman of DARLOA's road committee. Crews are quickly running out of room to put the snow, although recent sub-zero temperatures have given area contractors a break from the tedious, and often frustrating job, of moving tons of snow daily.
As most residents are finding out this winter, snow can only be pushed so far with a snowplow or road grader. Roads and driveways have become narrow, and people are looking for heavier equipment to make room for more winter.
"We need a cat," Kyle said, explaining that in the heavily treed sections of road on the ranch, the route has become narrow.
"It's a stretch to call it (the upper road) two-lane," Stan Nicholson, past president of DARLOA, commented. "You have to back up when you meet a car on some of the sections." But Nicholson, and most other year 'round residents of the large subdivision, are well pleased with work done by the current contractor, Rainbow Construction, his crews and subcontractors. The contractor even plows the berms out of the driveways after the main roads are open. That's something that Missoula County road crews are not able to do, and often receive criticism locally for "plowing people in."
"There's not too much we can do about that. We don't have enough people to clear the driveways," Horace Brown, County Surveyor, explained.
In spite of complaints, taxpayers at Seeley Lake and Condon get "a lot of bang for their buck" according to Terry Wahl, operations analyst in the County Surveyor's office. Missoula County's road department is divided into three sections: East, West and the Seeley Swan. The five-man Seeley Swan crew that works on roads between Clearwater Junction and the Lake County Line north of Condon, is responsible for maintaining about 100 miles of roads. The remaining 400 miles of county roads in Missoula County are maintained by a crew of 25 people working out of the East and West districts near Missoula.
"We have more roads, (in town) but you have more snow," Wahl said.
County road crews are responsible for clearing school bus routes and main roads first, then work on roads in residential areas near Seeley Lake and Condon. This year, the weather has given crews a hard time at Seeley Lake. "They're getting pretty tired," Brown said, explaining that personnel at Seeley Lake are working a lot of overtime to keep roads open.
"As of this week we'll be about $10,000 over budget," Missoula County Surveyor, Horace Brown, said recently. The county budgeted $50,000 for overtime for the current fiscal year, which doesn't end until June 30. Overtime expenses have already reached nearly $60,000, with five and a half months of fiscal year remaining. Funds to cover the county's extra expenses will probably come from summer maintenance projects, Brown said. However, he was quick to add that paving projects scheduled for Seeley Lake this year will probably go ahead as planned.
The record snowfall this winter has challenged people throughout the community, breaking not only their wallets, but their backs as well. But there might be some interesting social effects as well. People new to the area are learning to become more self-sufficient. More and more people seem comfortable decked out in wool pants and snowboots laced to the knees. And the homemade snowplows taking up space in local driveways no longer draw humorous comments.
An observation made by DARLOA president, Will Owens, maybe sums it up best. He estimates that probably 80% of the 240 homeowners who live at the Double Arrow Ranch all winter own at least one four wheel drive vehicle per family. And their second car is more than likely a front-wheel or four-wheel drive model-with studded tires. Anything else just isn't real practical!
(See related story on record snowfalls in November
& December, 1996.)