Sunday, May 15, 2022

Bigfork Water and Sewer candidate has history of long legal battle with district

Bigfork Eagle | April 29, 2022 12:00 AM

A candidate for the Bigfork Water and Sewer District Board has waged a lengthy legal battle with the utility, but says the dispute spurred him to campaign for a seat on the panel.

Paul Holland and the district, which the board oversees, ended up in court after officials alleged he improperly hooked a new housing development into the water and sewer system in 2017. While the courts have sided with the district, Holland maintains he followed the rules.

“They haven’t had any accountability for 30 years and it shows,” Holland said of the district. “Their administration is lacking.”

The suit began in 2018 when the Bigfork Water and Sewer District issued a complaint against Paul and his wife Cheryl that involved a shop and a duplex located toward the back of their property near downtown Bigfork. Holland said the couple built the duplex to generate extra income in retirement and did their due diligence.

He recalls receiving permission from district employees to proceed with the water and sewer hookup.

But district officials contest his version of events in court filings. They declined to comment for this story.

Rather, the district said it asked the Hollands to “take the necessary steps to obtain proper authorizations for water and sewer connections and to comply with the district’s rules and regulations,” three times starting in 2017.

Ultimately, Flathead District Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht ruled in favor of the district in 2020. Following the ruling, the district directed the Hollands to take the necessary steps to have their water and sewer service connected properly and within regulations.

That effort included having a design engineer submit water and sewer connection plans to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Bigfork Water and Sewer District for approval. The Hollands also were required to show thorough plans for the installation and pay the accrued charges for the buildings as if they had been connected with district approval.

The Hollands paid their court costs “for some of the owed arrears” for past unauthorized water and sewer use and deposited the required hookup/permit fees in trust, according to court documents.

The Hollands were given until Oct. 30, 2020 to submit plans for approval. Failure would result in those utilities being shut off. Holland said they tried to meet the deadline. Although they submitted plans on Oct. 30, his water and sewer were shut off the same day. Holland said he had to evict the tenants living in the units at that time.

In a letter to the Hollands from District Manager Julie Spencer in June of 2021, she wrote that their proposed plan to extend water and sewer services was unacceptable when Jackola Engineering brought it to the district the first time around on Aug. 5, 2020.

“When the same plans were submitted in October, service to the duplex and shop/apartment buildings was terminated,” Spencer wrote in her letter to the Hollands.

The Hollands sued the Bigfork Water and Sewer district twice after the lines to their duplex and shop were shut off — including unsuccessfully seeking a temporary restraining order in 2020 and filing a complaint in February 2021.

In their 2021 suit, the Hollands claim that the district acted in bad faith. Their allegations include that the district wrongfully withheld approval of their proposed plans and failed to hold a public meeting to discuss the plans, among others.

District officials denied those allegations and many others that the Hollands listed in their suit. District Judge Robert Allison ruled in favor of the Bigfork Water and Sewer District on April 5 of this year.

Despite hoping to hold a seat on the board in the near future, Holland plans to appeal that ruling. He said he believed a jury would side with the couple.

Holland said that, if elected, he doesn’t want to use his position on the board to affect his court fight with the district, but rather to improve customer relations.

“I’m not trying to get on the board just so I can fix my problems, forget that, that’s not the point at all,” he said. “I’d like to get on the board so I can fix your problems, if you happen to be a member of our district here.”

Holland said his duplex and shop have been without tenants since the water and sewer were disconnected in 2020. He has no other current developments in Flathead County. He previously developed a property in Columbia Falls but said he encountered no issues with the permitting process or hooking-up utilities.

Holland said he would recuse himself from any vote regarding his lawsuits with the board if he were elected.