Libby City Council again nixed the Kootenai Cross Country Ski Club’s effort to garner a $25,000 grant to pave a half-mile of trail near Flower Creek on Jan. 21.
City councilors voted 4-2 against the proposal with Rob Dufficy, Kristin Smith, Hugh Taylor and Peggy Williams opposing the request. The quartet cited liability concerns, past permitting problems with improvements at the site and worries that paving might threaten Libby’s water supply before casting their votes.
The decision came just two weeks after city councilors directed the cross-country ski organization to await a source water delineation report from the state. Because the Flower Creek drainage feeds into the city’s water supply, improvements undertaken there must be weighed against potential harm to the community, they said.
Proponents of the project could return to city council after the delineation report was finished, Mayor Brent Teske said at the time. The assessment is expected to occur in the spring.
Ben Scott, president of the skiing organization, presented a slightly reworked proposal to city councilors Jan. 21. The new request sought city council approval provided the delineation report returned with no problems.
Because the city owns the property, the ski club needs council’s approval for the project before U.S. Forest Service officials sign off on a grant. Delaying now might mean several years would pass before the group could again ask for federal funds for the proposal, he warned.
Scott described the paving project as integral to efforts to turn the Flower Creek area into a regional cross-country skiing hub.
“When you look at Nordic trails in areas where the cross-country skiing is quite a bit more popular — Scandinavian or Maine — it allows cross-country skiing to be done year round,” he said. “The nearest trails like this are previous Olympic sites.”
But opponents on city council pointed to previous problems with projects in the area, including permitting issues, as reason enough to reject the proposal.
“I think we deny this request based on previous bad behavior,” Taylor said.
Smith, who said she supported the project conceptually, told Scott he needed to rebuild trust with the community.
“I’ve been on record as saying I think this is a really great project … It is good for the community for residents and visitors,” Smith said. “I want to see it come to fruition, but I think at this time the paving should wait.”
She conceded that the city could have provided more oversight in previous projects, but said the breach in trust required mending. Taking a year to develop a better way of monitoring work in the area made sense, she said.
Smith also criticized the ski club for declining opportunities to fundraise in cooperation with Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company, which she owns. That was “frustrating,” she said.
“It feels like it’s always these public asks,” Smith said.
In response, Scott told city councilors he felt the loss of trust issue was overstated. He blamed unnamed individuals in the community for souring the city’s elected officials against the project.
But Teske interjected, telling Scott that city councilors looked at a host of information before coming to a decision.
“Most of council’s interpretation of this is coming from meetings and other avenues,” he said, before calling Scott’s description of the project’s opponents a “moot point.”
“That’s the public comment — that’s the part we have to consider as well,” Teske said.
City Council Brian Zimmerman urged his colleagues to approve the project with the proposed conditions.
“Yes, some things have happened,” Zimmerman said. “There’s maybe been some setbacks that need to be corrected, but trust can be built while moving forward.”
Zimmerman and fellow City Council Gary Beach voted in favor of the request. Beach said he was only comfortable supporting the proposal because of the contingencies built into the resolution.
“Through conversation, I think you guys are trying to rectify those [past problems], but it doesn’t make it right that they occurred,” Beach said.