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Dunrovin Ranch could see mediator in land use dispute

By Kevin Maki, KECI Reporter, kmaki@keci.com
Published On: Jan 17 2013 07:30:57 PM MST
Updated On: Jan 17 2013 08:52:25 PM MST
LOLO, Mont. -

Missoula County commissioners are "cautiously optimistic" they've found a mediator to resolve a long standing dispute over a Lolo guest ranch.

County officials said Dunrovin Ranch is in violation of the law. Ranch owners said government is being unreasonable.

The dispute stems from a renovated garage and a new building standing incomplete.

Dunrovin Ranch has always been a haven for SuzAnne Miller's friends and family.

She and her husband thought why not start a guest ranch.

"I had just a small piece of paradise out here," said Miller, "and I thought I'll share it with the public."

Miller said the county gave them the go ahead.

"They wished us luck," she said.

Miller and her husband renovated a detached garage and mother-in-law unit  to an office and apartments.

Eventually, said the ranch owner, they started building a new garage and storage unit, which could in the future accommodate more guests.

But the county said the new structure lacked building, electrical and sanitation approval.

In fact, it found even the old garage, new office, and apartments were in violation of sanitation and subdivision review.

"The septic system was sized for one single family dwelling," said deputy county attorney James McCubbin.

That puts the ranch in a bind.

The ranch offers horseback activities, weddings, river recreation and classes.

People come from down the road, and from all over the world.

"We've lost business," said Miller, "I have people calling all the time asking if we're going to be in business."

Miller said most of their guests don't stay overnight. But some do.

She said to reduce impact on the sewer, they use portable toilets, pump the septic twice a year to prevent problems, and test their water regularly.

"We get inadequate treatment when people don't have a system that's designed to handle the loads they need to," said environmental health director Jim Carlson. "This particular system isn't too far from the river."

Miller wants to upgrade the sewer system to install public bathrooms.

But before that can happen, the ranch must go through subdivision review.

"To undergo review for public health and safety" said McCubbin, "sufficient road access, emergency access, water for firefighting, sanitation, effects on the environment and wildlife."

Miller thinks businesses like hers that  have been operating for some years should be grandfathered in.

The Millers attempted to change the subdivision review law in the legislature in 2011. The attempt failed.

She said to hire a consultant to prepare the application costs between $20,000 and $40,000.

To save money, she said, she and her husband are preparing the paperwork on their own and it has already cost tens of thousands of dollars.

She can't understand why government can't work to get the review process and the sanitation permit going all at once.

"We're bound by state law and we must comply," said Carlson, "or we're doing something illegal."

Carlson said the county's been working with Dunrovin since 2010 to get the review process going, but nothing has happened.

Dunrovin's ranch manager said it's been stressful for a growing business that provides jobs and services to the community, many of them for kids.

"To bring in tourists," said Jamie Breidenbach. "Dunrovin has done a lot for Missoula County.

County officials said they don't dispute Dunrovin's good work, but their work is to protect the public.