Saturday, May 23, 2020

Why do we pay for a transfer station that closed on the weekend?

Two weekends ago at the City of Helena Transfer Station on Saturday.
Helena and Helena Valley residents hauling yard waste, taking out their trash, or recycling at the City of Helena Transfer Station have faced a crowded scene these last three weekends. Folks are right to be courteous to the staff on the ground doing an amazing, essential job of moving folks through. They should wonder why their public collection facility is closing on Sunday when the weekends are the busiest time for residents to use the facility. 

The weekend closure highlights an underlining flaw in how our public "solid waste system" is run that leads to less service. The overarching priority is to maximize trash to the landfill while maximizing tax revenue from residents into the public "enterprise" funds. The funds, which include the City Transfer Station, City Commercial Collection Service, and Lewis & Clark County Landfill are run to make public visits to the facility "more efficiency" by reducing trips (residential use) and increasing "tonnage" per trip (commercial use). Additional sources of trash are sought for revenue.  

The recent Sunday closure is apparently to address risks posed to residents as they get closer to this trash climbing the tipping floor walls per COVID 19 (city budget discussion).  The *proximity to trash is a potential vector disease should, however, should be avoided in the best of times. Fortunately, this situation can be avoided: 

  • The City Transfer Station can send trash to the private landfill on Sunday. The private company was open to this in the past as a trash exchange could help both parties operate more efficiently, save fuel, and reduce costs while avoiding the weekend service issues.
  • Direct City Residential and Commercial Garbage trucks directly to the Lewis and Clark County Landfill, as least on Friday and Saturday so they don't fill up the pit ahead of residents. As the 2014 "Efficiency Study of [the] Solid Waste System" noted, this would have immense cost savings to the entire collection system (**nearly $2,700 per week!). **This could also allow the second bay to be open for social distancing on the weekend.  

However, both of these options go against business as is usual for our public collection system seeking to outcompete a private company for trash. Several years ago, the same contradiction came to light as the City and County sought to drastically limit the use of the Transfer Station by residents--less than a dozen trips per year. Residents rightly raised heck about this. That tonnage goal policy had to be abandoned by the city and county commissioners who'd supported it after residents realized they could no longer use the facility their taxes pay for. The current Sunday closure stems from the same rationale to pursue handling more trash rather than service to residents. This reduction in service should be abandoned.

The city and county commissions can and should immediately act to prioritize safety and convenience residents by opening the Transfer Station on Sunday. While they are at it, the should reprioritize the related "solid waste system" budgets to address the conflicts that caused this weekend mess in the first place. 

- ME

Three weekends ago on Saturday. 
Last Saturday.
Recent Saturday Spring 2020Recent Saturday Spring 2020

p.s. Kudos to the new City Commissioners trying to address this very issue during the budget process, the only place to seriously address it, as the City is slated to spend $1,350,000 for an extra shop for Residential Garbage trucks (the "enterprise" fleet gets to keep the current digs). 

p.s.2. This conflicted goal of more trash while residents are paying for a generally fixed and often underutilized service has other peculiar effects.  Waste reduction, recycling, and compost options are at odds with tonnage over the transfer station and landfill scales. For example, green waste separated by residents at the transfer station brings in the full per ton rate for the Transfer Station. However, the separate "recycling fund" from the tax assessments pays to process the material, which is no longer composted. Green waste was historically composted with the City Waste Water sewage sludge to create soil. Now both items are buried with tipping fees paid to the enterprise funds.

p.s..3. As I summarize here, our community was promised a more responsive collection system that would focus on service to residents, including recycling and related diversion efforts. It is time to realize this promise and prioritize giving residents the services they are paying for on the days they'd use them.

*Since the Lewis & Clark County Landfill is closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the trash from residents thrown from the north bay (image left) and garbage trucks on the right, builds up. Either of the alternatives mentioned would alleviate or eliminate this situation during the weekend and allow for use of the second bay for social distancing and convenience. 

A recent image from the recently built $1,600,000 expansion
 on a day trash has not yet reached the platform used by residents.

**From the 2014 Solid Waste System Efficiency Study (August 22nd Version; de facto final draft)

Friday, January 10, 2020

Helena zoning changes should require a public process.


This Monday, January 13th, the Helena City Commission will consider major changes to most existing residential neighborhoods (agenda linked here). These changes, specifically "Item B" on the consent agenda, should be rejected. Here is the letter I submitted to the Helena Independent Record:

Keep a Public Process for Zoning Changes

This Monday, the Helena Commission may rezone most neighborhoods to allow higher buildings, increased lot coverage, and more dwelling units. This already happens, but with a public variance process.

Similar changes were rejected in the 2008 zoning overhaul. Residents raised concerns about privacy, sunshine for gardening, traffic, solar access, views, emergency access, and other items affecting their home value and quality of life. The changes will be efficient for developers and increase infill. They will not always benefit existing residents, some of whom might look outside Helena City Limits where six times as many single-family homes are built most years—not a win for density or tax base for emergency services.

There were unintended consequences from the 2008 changes.  One of them was a streamlined conditional use permit (CUP) process that is too permissive; something the commission is also addressing this Monday (other examples at

The commission should reject the proposed zoning changes, make changes one neighborhood at a time, or at least require a CUP for the new rules. Housing can still change, but residents should be able to raise their concerns and the city should address them.

Details for Monday’s 6 pm meeting are at

Matt Elsaesser
P.O. Box 321
Helena, MT

In 2014, six houses went outside of city limits for every house build in city limits. Many of the reasons are well documented in this Helena Independent Record article (four houses to East Helena or the Valley, 2 additional neighboring counties). The issues documented in the article that make Helena the "capital of sprawl" include rural development loans available only outside of the city, difficulty building in the city, and lack of city interest in bringing nearby development into the city. None of these issues are addressed by retroactively rezoning existing neighborhoods including many that are already of the densest in the state. Combined with city action to eliminate off-street parking requirements and not allowing shared water lines, there are real fiscal costs too.

Here are more details on the impacts I have cited related to the 2008 zoning changes:
  • An overly permissive conditional use permit (CUP) process left the city commission with the option to either deny a project or not mitigate conflicts. For example, parking or other expansion by a business from a commercial district into a residential district ("highest use") may increase property and tax value. A CUP process, in theory, could mitigate the impacts to the homeowner is this scenario, but only if the CUP process allows conditions to mitigate conflicts.
  • Default approval of minor subdivision with no review of traffic impacts, costs to city utilities, and other impacts. 
    • City utilities subsidizing new axillary dwelling units (ADU's/Mother in Law Apartments) in existing neighborhoods by using water main replacement funds to run lines down alleyways with minor subdivisions. (This could be addressed by requiring easements when lots are subdivided but the city utility often covers this cost--$300,000 for around 10 new houses one year. Other new, non-infill development would have paid these costs directly.)
    • Allowing new duplexes and apartment buildings in all residential zones will increase traffic in some areas. It is not always going to be a problem, but the city is left with no tools to mitigate these impacts.
    • Example: Someone builds a "mother-in-law" apartment on the garage off of the alley and then sells the garage has a separate house. City requirements will include new water services down the alleyway that must be paid for. 
  • Continued growth outside of city limits for single-family homes as high as seven houses per year for every house in the city. Some of this was inevitable as some folks want to live in a more rural setting. Much of it was not.
  • Allowing four-plex apartment buildings in the consolidate Residential One and Residential Two (R1/R2) zoning districts. This is allowed by combining the right for a duplex on any two adjoining lots to be combined. (Not inherently bad but not what a young family might expect to be built against their back yard) 
  • A lawsuit against our public airport, proposed emergency zoning, and near failure to renew the airport to prevent uses recently affirmed in the zoning update. (Incidentally, this likely stopped hundreds of state jobs and an additional parking garage from going downtown at the core of our community)
  • Continued distraction from serious planning work to realize the City-County Memorandum of Understanding regarding joint design standards within the urban boundary(s) set by the current growth policy.
  • It remains less favorable to develop large subdivisions in city limits relative to outside of city limits. This includes higher infrastructure costs since new development must overbuild infrastructure to meet Helena's streamlined zoning and their housing goals. To get higher density, higher lot coverage single-family zoning, developers must try for a planned unit development or select higher density zoning and include their own covenants for use. This means the city must require wider streets among other things since the zoning would allow for more apartments and residents, even though the homes are single-family. Costs are higher and the density of the development is offset by wider streets.
The City would do better to focus on other barriers to development in the city relative to areas outside of city limits including other counties. One major disparity is the allowance for rural development loans outside of city limits; something the commission could work with our congressional delegation to address as other communities have done by simply grandfathering the existing or previous city limits to allow new growth in the city to be eligible for the funds.

- ME

p.s.  The city could genuinely lead to protecting our environment in a lot of areas. In this case, the city could condition new development rights with substantial economic benefit to the developer to include provisions for green building and public safety. The city is not winning on "smart-growth," infill, and like policies for the larger community.

p.s.2. As I wrote in 2014, while serving on the commission, the city actually needs more zoning designations to better serve residents and growth policy goals. Ironically, these changes continue a path going the other direction.