Clearing the air on responsibility

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  • Martin Dunbar drives up the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road which has plagued his property with dust for nearly a decade, May 20 near Libby. “All summer long we get dirt poured on us,” he said. It is like the air quality rules in Lincoln County are a joke, he said. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

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    A warning sign nailed to the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road entrance states “Road Dust Hazard Respirator Advised.” (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

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    The road up to Panoramic View Estates starts to become dusty after a few dry days in a row. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

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    The entrance of Panoramic View Estates starts to become dry and dusty. Residents living below the road say dust drifts from cars driving on it and covers their property below. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

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    Arlene Elletson, a resident living just under the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road, said her husband, who takes oxygen due to asbestosis, cannot safely breath outside with the excessive amounts of dust. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

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    Martin Dunbar stands on his front porch, looking out to the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road, from where dust normally floats down, May 20. “All summer long we get dirt poured on us,” he said. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

  • Martin Dunbar drives up the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road which has plagued his property with dust for nearly a decade, May 20 near Libby. “All summer long we get dirt poured on us,” he said. It is like the air quality rules in Lincoln County are a joke, he said. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

  • 1

    A warning sign nailed to the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road entrance states “Road Dust Hazard Respirator Advised.” (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

  • 2

    The road up to Panoramic View Estates starts to become dusty after a few dry days in a row. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

  • 3

    The entrance of Panoramic View Estates starts to become dry and dusty. Residents living below the road say dust drifts from cars driving on it and covers their property below. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

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    Arlene Elletson, a resident living just under the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road, said her husband, who takes oxygen due to asbestosis, cannot safely breath outside with the excessive amounts of dust. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

  • 5

    Martin Dunbar stands on his front porch, looking out to the Panoramic View Estates subdivision road, from where dust normally floats down, May 20. “All summer long we get dirt poured on us,” he said. (Luke Hollister/The Western News)

For almost a decade, Lincoln County residents living below a subdivision road have dealt with copious amounts of dust covering their homes, cars, yards and, at times, floating in as thick as fog. A warning nailed to a tree at the road’s entrance states, “Respirator Advised.”

The dust comes from a single dirt road leading up to the Panoramic View Estates subdivision.

Taylor Loop residents affected by the dust took their concerns to the City-County Board of Health.

On May 9, the Lincoln County Health Department issued an abatement, ordering subdivision owners to remedy the dust problem.

The land owners now have until June 30 to solve what the department labeled as a “health hazard,” but concerned residents do not think it will end there.

Arlene Elletson, a resident living just under the subdivision road, said her husband, who takes oxygen due to asbestosis, cannot safely breath outside with the excessive amounts of dust.

When “he’s suckin’ in that dirt, he starts coughin’,” she said. He already has a hard enough time as it is.

Elletson has lived along the Taylor Loop Road since 1986, long before the subdivision existed.

The dust, “you can’t see it coming. But it [gets] all over you — all inside my house,” she said. The dust essentially locks them inside.

Elletson believes dust-filled air on her property has negatively affected her health. It has caused nasal problems as well as ear problems, she said.

Potential buyers wouldn’t want to live along the subdivision road, covered in dirt, she said. There never used to be a road back there.

“I just don’t get it,” she said. The subdivision owners know how dusty the road is, but they also knew what they were getting themselves into.

It has been a long, disgusting nine years, she said.

Martin and Cheri Dunbar, who have lived along Taylor Loop for about 20 years, also share Elletson’s concerns.

“All summer long we get dirt poured on us,” said Martin Dunbar.

The dust has gotten so bad at times, making it impossible to see a parked car from the front door of the house, he said.

Cheri added, “it’s just so dusty — you can taste it in your mouth.”

At one point, Taylor Road residents made a petition with 30 signatures on it, calling on subdivision owners to fix the road, said Martin.

The county would not do anything about it because residents in the dust area are not in the sanding and sweeping district, he said.

Finding solutions

Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennet said, since the subdivision is outside of the sanding district, subdivision owners are not held to regulations on dust control.

It could be a misunderstanding of who is responsible for the road, he said.

The location of the subdivision “makes it a little more challenging” to help do something about it,” he said. If it does end up in court, it will probably be a drawn out process.

“I wanted to see if we could work through it” with the subdivision owners, rather than having the health department issue an abatement order, he said.

Roughly ten years ago, before Bennet was a commissioner, Taylor Loop residents made a petition to try to stop the dust.

That was the first official complaint, but there have been several more complaints since then, he said.

“I’m in hopes that they will get together — [and] just move forward without needing to be told by a judge,” he said.

Bennett said he realizes it is expensive to fix the road.

“We live in a great country where we have the right to develop and make money,” he said. “But we also have a responsibility not to harm our neighbors.”

Blindsided?

Subdivision resident Mindy Robinson agreed about the importance of caring for her neighbors, but said she felt blindsided by the abatement order.

She just recently moved into her house as a full time resident, and said her husband has been living there for roughly seven months.

There has been very little discussion between subdivision residents and the health department, she said. When buying the place, no one brought any dust complaints to the surface.

“We were not given a heads up — the county didn’t red flag anything about it,” she said. “We did our due diligence. Everything you go through when you buy a home.”

Other people who purchased these properties believed they were free of any issues too, she said.

Like the Taylor Loop residents, Robinson said she also gets hit with the dust. After she saw how the dust affected her neighbors below, she started driving 10 miles an hour.

“I’m doing it because I care about our neighbors, these people are part of our community and I care about them,” she said.

Subdivision residents can only do two things to fix the road, she said: chip and seal or drive 10 miles an hour.

With only a handful of people living up in the subdivision, chipsealing the entire dirt road is not an affordable option, she said.

“I did raise the 10 miles an hour as a solution, and you would have thought I was asking people to sacrifice their lives,” she said.

But Robinson primarily blames the county for the current situation.

The health department and the county commissioners allowed the subdivision, they allowed the road and they did nothing about it in all the years its been here, she said.

Robinson said she talked both with Lincoln County commissioners and State Rep. Steve Gunderson in an attempt to resolve the dust issue.

Gunderson did try to assist, but came up with nothing, she said.

What the county is asking for is new construction, she said. Maintenance means keeping the road in good working order — in its current form — not construction.

She feels the county hasn’t done its job with communication, she said. “If the health department [and] the county want to throw me in jail — put me in jail, I’m ready,”

Fixing past mistakes

On the county’s side, those trying to fix the problem all came to work for the county long after the original subdivision was approved.

Jake Mertes, an environmental health specialist with the Lincoln County Health Department, said the subdivision should not have been approved without a dust mitigation plan in their road maintenance agreement.

Neighbors complained about the dust prior to approval, but it still wasn’t addressed in the road maintenance agreement, he said. The road should not have been approved in the first place.

In general, dust should be mentioned so that homeowners or whoever owns the road, ends up being responsible — be it a private or public road — he said. If dust is found during a subdivision review phase, then some kind of dust mitigation should be put into the road plan.

“There was reports of dust prior to this approval,“ he said. “We don’t want to let that happen again.”

Health Department Director Kathi Hooper said the Board of Health sought an opinion from the Lincoln County Attorney’s office to determine who was responsible for the health hazard.

Based on a road maintenance agreement, the attorney’s office determined the responsibility for the road fell on subdivision property owners, she said.

The health department initially gave property owners until March 8 to provide a plan to the county to solve the dust issue, she said. Subdivision owners did submit a proposal, “but it seemed like negotiations had stalled.”

Responsible parties include every person who owns a lot on the subdivision, she said. Some people own subdivision lots but do not live up their, and there are a few owners who live out of state.

“I’m not saying that we’re not willing to do an extension or work with them” but the order only gives them until June 9 to “completely remedy the situation,” she said.

If they fail to abate the dust, the county will bring and pursue actions necessary to abate, such as to restrain or prosecute, due to the violation of county health ordinances, she said.

Dust problems get worse in July and August, she said.

Martin said in the summer evenings, when the air starts cooling off, is when the dust gets the worst.

He thinks the dust issue will end up in court. Which would mean another dusty summer for residents below Panoramic View Estates.

Kurt Spencer, a developer on the subdivision, declined to comment. Spencer said he has been pushed into a corner and will be talking to his lawyer.

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