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Group forms to fight downtown plan

| May 19, 2006 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

A group of downtown property owners is organizing in opposition to a proposed streetscape project commissioned by Libby Revitalization Inc.

The mission statement of the Libby Downtown Association expresses opposition to the streetscape proposal's aesthetic vision as well as to the creation of a special improvement district that would levy an assessment on downtown property to help fund the project. The statement argues that owners should be responsible for improvements to individual properties and that proposed improvements to city property such as new sidewalks and curbs should be fully funded by the city.

The group's president, accountant Wayne Hirst, called the streetscape design "overblown" and said it doesn't match up with the blue -collar style that is one of the things that many people like about Libby. The design would make Libby look like Whitefish or one of Colorado's "cookie-cutter towns," Hirst said.

"We don't live here to be in a town like Whitefish," he said. "It's fancier than what some of us might like."

Libby should be allowed to evolve by itself with the kinds of improvements already being made by individual property owners, Hirst said.

"Growth has started in Libby that we haven't seen since the 1970s," he said.

Some retail store owners are concerned about the impacts on their business if Mineral Avenue is closed for construction, Hirst said.

"I would be if I were a retail store," he said.

Hirst estimated that over half of the Mineral Avenue property owners are supportive of the new association and opposed to LRI's streetscape plan. That estimate clashes with LRI's own reckoning that 70 percent or more are in favor of the plan. Hirst questioned LRI's assertion that the majority of property owners been approached about the proposal.

"They say they've contacted people, and nobody's been asked," Hirst said.

The city council has endorsed the streetscape plan and has advertised for an engineer to define the scope of the project. That would allow the city to move ahead with the creation of a special improvement district, which would assess property owners at a rate based on street frontage and provide local matching funds for the grants that are proposed to fund the bulk of the project cost. The total cost has been estimated at more than $7.5 million.

The SID promoted by LRI and its consultants would bring in around $400,000 with an assessment of $75 to $100 per foot of street frontage. Property owners would have the option of paying assessments all at once or amortizing the cost over a number of years.

Creation of an SID could be stopped by protests from owners of more than 50 percent of the property within the district. Hirst said his group is looking for a way to stop the SID before it even gets to that point. He said some people are worried that the city will start forming SIDs for projects all around Libby.

"Where does it all end?" he said.