This story has been updated.
People who live near the Billings landfill are raising questions about plans to expand the facility.
They are also concerned, again, about a state law that gives the city blanket approval of such plans, and makes public comment on the plans a meaningless formality.
A public hearing is scheduled for this afternoon before the Yellowstone County Board of Adjustment, but since the city is asking to “use public land for public purposes contrary to zoning,” the board will have no power to deny the proposed use, “but shall act only to allow a public hearing for comment on the proposed use.”
That wording, quoting state law, was lifted a from staff report written by the Planning and Community Services Department. The same wording came into play last year, when the city established a law enforcement shooting range on city land adjacent to the landfill.
Residents worried then and are worried now that they will lose property value and live with nuisances as a result of the city’s plans.
“Our property values will drop overnight,” Sandra Hawke said. She and her husband Bob live on Hillcrest Road about a quarter mile past the southeast edge of the landfill. Expansion will just add to the annoyances neighbors already experience, she said, including machinery and equipment noise, smells, flies and blowing trash.
In the 25 years since land for the existing landfill was rezoned to accommodate the dump, she said, “the community has grown out there,” from a handful to many dozens of houses. “The landscape has changed, so that’s a concern.”
Marc Vischer, who lives just an eighth of mile past the landfill on Hillcrest, said if the city expands to the south and east of Hillcrest as proposed, residents like him would “essentially be driving through the middle of a landfill.”
The existing landfill covers 572 acres; the proposed expansion would add 232 acres.
Will Robbins, a city engineer working on the project with Great West Engineering, a private contractor, said the city is unlikely to need the additional space for 25 years, maybe as much as 40 years, but thinks it’s prudent to begin the process now.
The project would have to be approved by the state Department of Environmental Quality, he said, and while that process sometimes takes only a couple of years, it has been known to take five to 10 years.
“We want to make sure we’ve done our due diligence, and when the time comes we can move forward without any hiccups,” he said.
Robbins said the city submitted its application for the project to the DEQ last year. As part of the process, he said, the DEQ will accept public comments on the project for 30 days, possibly starting sometime this spring.
The hearing before the Board of Adjustment starts at 4 p.m. today in the first-floor conference room in the downtown building, at 2825 Third Ave. N., that houses Planning Department offices.
Among those planning to attend the hearing is John Ostlund, a Yellowstone County commissioner who lives at the south end of the residential area accessed by Hillcrest Road, about two miles past the landfill.
Ostlund said he’s heard from “a lot of” his neighbors—all of whom live in the county—with concerns about the expansion. While the project looks to be inevitable, Ostlund said, “I think there’s things they can do to ease the neighborhood fears.”
The city should do all it can to prevent trash from blowing off site, he said, and it may need to look at creating a new access road to the expanded portion of the landfill, so that garbage trucks are not using the steep, busy Hillcrest Road. That access road, Ostlund said, should be “singular to the dump.”
Public Works Director David Mumford said plans to use the expanded acreage are so far in the future that the city hasn’t determined yet where the access road will be. It might be possible to build a road over the closed part of the landfill, he said, and if Hillcrest Road were used it would have to be improved.
The city does plan to relocate the scales where vehicles are weighed from inside the existing landfill to the new area, perhaps in eight to 10 years, but those plans are also open to change, Mumford said. Scales for the big trucks might remain in the existing landfill, he said, in which case only residential users would have vehicles weighed at the new scales.
Vischer said he wants to ask the city whether it has considered building satellite landfills elsewhere in the county. Besides serving Billings and Yellowstone County, the landfill takes in trash from Treasure, Musselshell, Carbon and Stillwater counties.
Vischer said it would seem to make sense that satellite landfills closer to the other counties would be more efficient and save a lot of gas. He and Hawke also questioned whether the landfill should be serving as a revenue generator by taking in trash from other counties.
“I have a hard time thinking that that’s the purpose of a landfill, to keep expanding,” Vischer said.
Mumford said satellites or transfer stations have been considered, but the costs would be prohibitive. Also, he said, trash from outside counties amounts to less than 10 percent of the total taken in. (UPDATE: Mumford called back later in the day to say he did some more research and found out he was mistaken. The amount of trash that comes in from other counties is “closer to 40 percent” of the total, he said, not less than 10 percent.)
“They’re just not a big player,” he said of the other counties. “The big player is all Billings.”
In fact, he said, Yellowstone County residents are getting a break partly because of those other counties, which are charged a premium for using the Billings landfill.
“We just give county residents a break we don’t give anybody else because it is Yellowstone County,” he said, even though they, like residents of outlying counties “are outsiders, too.”
Mumford said Billings takes trash from other counties because federal regulations make it almost impossible for smaller-population counties to build large-scale landfills that can accept all kinds of waste. Even Livingston still sends it garbage to the Great Falls landfill, he said.