Council Agrees to 30 Day Extension on WSC Building Removal, Still Working Towards Resolution: Let's Mend Some Fences
May 17, 2023
At the May meeting of the Whitehall Town Council, held Monday, May 15th at the Town Hall, the Council heard a brief but informative presentation from Gene Townsend on Three Forks’ recreation complex and the process Three Forks has taken to improve the facility.
The presentation was well-received by the Council, who questioned how the vendors were handled, who covered maintenance, and whatnot to Townsend. Townsend noted that the Three Forks facility went from barely bringing in 300 people a night to now having 3300 people on their biggest nights and holding about 25 events per year. The Town is also in talks about having a weekly rodeo series, at the facility.
The presentation was followed by Town attorney Ed Guza’s findings on the property and equipment at the Whitehall Rodeo Grounds. The property and who owns what has been the center of the question at hand, since the Whitehall Saddle Club (WSC) has had their building lease early terminated and all property owned by them must be removed by June 17, 2023.
Guza said that, in looking at the items in dispute, and utilizing the Montana Code Annotated (specifically MCA 7018-101 and MCA 7015-103), anything affixed to the ground and without an agreement belongs to the owner of the land - the Town. Anything embedded, resting, and a permanent fixture also constitute the Town’s ownership and cannot be removed by the WSC as they are the Town’s real property.
“No one wants to make this into an adversarial process,” Guza said. “But the town has a strong case.”
Action item 4 in New Business requested the Council’s determination on the WSC’s request for a 180-day extension on removing the 1940s-built Saddle Club Clubhouse.
Councilman Bill Lanes started the discussion with a written statement.
“I’ve had two discussions with Saddle Club members this past month that have been cordial and I do appreciate them for reaching out to me. However, I did vote in the affirmative last month to accept the Rec Board's recommendation to terminate the lease on the Clubhouse structure. I’m going to be consistent and not flip-flop. I’m 100% behind the vision being cast to bring added improvements to the entire facility.
“This hot-button issue in my opinion has very little to do, or nothing to do, with the lease of a clubhouse. The matter is more about ownership of the property and improvements made to the complex specifically the arena for our community. There is a discrepancy as to whether the WSC owns specific items or the town of Whitehall associated with the arena.
“All over Whitehall entities make substantial efforts to improve specific community landmarks. Such as the pavilion at the park, skatepark, gazebo, fishpond, Silver-tower park, bike park, pool, baseball fields, library, and more. Seldom or if ever have I heard of any organization stating they will remove the improvements made.”
Lanes added that he would like to see a special commemoration for the WSC, much like the Veteran’s Wall or the tiles at the Rotary Fishpond, in appreciation for the hard work the WSC has done.
“Let’s mend some fences and pull together for the good of our community. That mentality will be a much better legacy when we are all pushing up daisies,” Lanes said.
“We can’t get the building out of there by mid-June,” Rich Johnson said, adding that the WSC has been searching for building movers and getting bids, but it is both short notice and very expensive. Johnson then moved the conversation toward the disputed property, as mentioned by Guza.
“I would pay for mediation out of my own pocket to get this resolved,” Johnson said. The Council was split with the desire to resolve the issue, but also not drag the situation out another six months. In the end, a 30-day extension was approved for removing the clubhouse, and the Council requested the WSC, Guza, and Town reps meet in the next week to further discuss the disputed property.
“We still have time,” Councilman Shawn Hoagland said, speaking on upcoming events scheduled at the rodeo grounds and saving summer events.
Whitehall Chamber of Commerce President Liz Pullman questioned Guza that, were the disputed property to go into litigation, would that make scheduled events unable to proceed because of a lawsuit? Guza assured that, in most cases, judges would rule as a status quo - that if it were a regular event normally held, the litigation would not necessarily hold up events using the property. The Chamber and several others are still seeking rodeo and other event contracts for Frontier Days.
• Business licenses were approved for Domni Pro LLC, Mama’s Little Bear Cleaning, Mobile Mike’s Food to Go, and MT Euros Taxidermy.
• The following applications to the planning board were approved: Zane Kountz (fence), Ron Stolba (fence), and Western Legacy Center (sign). Applications for Andrew Ostrander (garage) and Rosalea Figgins (storage container) were tabled until corrections to the applications were submitted.
• Will Austin was appointed to Planning Board.
• Lifeguard applications were approved for Ethan Valov, Hope Moriarty, Kari Ellison, and Lainey Ellison.
•The TIFF board has restructured; Kurtis Koenig (President), Roy McBride (Treasurer), Mary Janacaro-Hensleigh (Mayor), Jenna McNew (Board Member), and Katy James (Board Member). James reported at the last TIFF meeting Janacaro-Hensleigh stated that appointments were not meant to be “life sentences” and removed Bridget Morse from the board due to “reckless behavior” that could have cost the town an $800k grant.
• Guza announced that the Janik vs Town lawsuit, which has been in the works for several years, has been resolved. Janik will be paid $100k, with $20K being paid by the Town and the other $80k covered by the Town’s insurance company.
• The Council approved Resolution 2023-9 for posting area designations for Town meetings - required posting areas are Rocky Mountain Bank, the Town, and the Town website, as well as Jefferson Fresh Foods.
• Maxine Samuelson presented the Town with a wind-resistant American Flag. Samuelson noted she was not unanimous comment in the Ledger, but also felt the Town Hall needed a flag.