By Martin Kidston
The fallout over last weekend’s “towathon” at Kona Ranch Road, which left dozens of motorists stranded at the Clark Fork River, has stirred emotional debate and prompted at least one Missoula lawmaker to seek funding to address access issues during the 2017 Legislative session.
Over the Independence Day weekend, an estimated 55 motorists left the river after a day of floating to find their vehicles missing. They’d been towed by several local companies per an ordinance passed by Missoula County commissioners in March and amended early last week.
“We did it early this spring with a whole public process,” Commissioner Jean Curtiss said of the initial regulations. “We did a site visit and walked the area. It was on the public agenda, it had been discussed several times and it was noticed in the paper, just like any time we do new parking regulations.”
The public hearing took place on March 23, where commissioners adopted new parking regulations at Kona Ranch Road and Sandalwood Court. The meeting was noticed in the local paper on two consecutive Sundays.
Several “no parking” signs were installed near the bridge shortly after the regulations were adopted. But many of those towed over the weekend said the signs weren’t visible, and they weren’t aware of the county’s crackdown on parking.
Bill Burdick, who had his vehicle towed on the 4th of July, said the county’s public hearings – held during work hours – don’t allow the public an opportunity to weigh in on local issues. He believes the county did a poor job of noticing the public on the changes.
“Everyone’s at work when they hold their meetings,” said Burdick. “The county isn’t meeting the needs of the public. They’ve forgotten who they work for.”
Curtiss said neighbors who live near the access point on Kona Ranch Road brought the parking issue to the county’s attention and asked commissioners to address it.
Area neighbors have complained about cars parking alongside the road, sometimes blocking their driveway. Access for emergency vehicles became a growing concern as well, Curtiss said.
“The problem was brought to our attention by the neighbors who said it was getting dangerous,” Curtiss said. “We want people to have access to the river, but Kona has limited parking and the overflow is impacting the neighborhood. It’s intended to address safety.”
Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, who lives on Kona Ranch Road, has seen parked cars stretching down both sides of the road for a distance of 1,000 feet. He said the road isn’t wide enough to accommodate parked vehicles.
“With all the parking that’s been taking place there, it has become problematic for emergency vehicles, and the neighbors have complained about people blocking their driveways and turning around in their property,” Curdy said. “When you have two vehicles parked on both sides, it gets very narrow, and speed is a problem out here.”
Curdy believes the problem at Kona Ranch Road is symptomatic of a larger issue. The Missoula population is growing, placing increased pressure on recreational sites and public access. He believes it’s time for city and county leaders, as well as the state, to sit down and find a solution.
“As our population grows, there’s going to be even more use,” said Curdy. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
As state legislators prepare for the next session, Curdy plans to seek funding from the Habitat Montana Program to improve recreational opportunities, including access to popular sites like the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers.
Curdy said state Republicans voted not to fund the program in 2015, though he believes it’s time to revisit the issue in the next session.
“What we need to do in the next session is deal with the situation at Kona and other access sites, and fund that program again to expand our outdoor recreation opportunities,” Curdy said. “That money comes out of the license fees and other sources, and it’s used to enhance recreation opportunities in Montana.”
Curdy is also working with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to find parking solutions for the Kona site. He said the discussions are still early, though he hopes they move toward action down the road.
“One alternative was to maybe negotiate with land owners on the east end of the (Kona) bridge to maybe purchase some land,” Curdy said. “That Habitat Montana money would be used to do that. By doing that, we’d obviously provide more parking facilities.”
Those who use the river, including Burdick, are also urging state and local leaders to find solutions, whether they include additional parking, relaxed parking regulations or shuttles to and from popular river access points.
Burdick lays part of the blame on what he sees as intolerant residents.
“If they didn’t want to deal with it, they should have bought a house somewhere else,” he said. “It used to be undeveloped and you used to be able to park anywhere. When it became developed, all of a sudden there’s a parking issue.
“The county (commissioners) have forgotten where they reside,” he added. “This is a recreation state. They need to work with the public better and collaborate. They’re still doing things the old-fashioned way.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org