Back on Track?



Bob Hanson has been involved in stock car racing all his life. He's excited about being able to participate in his sport at home in Stevensville.

Cora Cochran is not opposed to motor sport racing; she just doesn't want it across the road from her retirement home.

"We came home from church one Sunday and there was that sign," Cochran says. "It was a terrible shock."

The sign announcing the future of the Bitterroot Valley Motor Sports Association Racetrack sits at a corner of North Kootenai Road on Ed Cumming's 1,100-acre ranch which borders U.S. Highway 93 just north of the Stevensville Wye.

It caused immediate consternation-and reaction-with the Cochrans, who live just across the road from the proposed racetrack, and with other folks in their neighborhood.

"My husband went door-to-door through the neighborhood with a petition. There were only two people who didn't sign it," Cochran says. "We organized BAR-Bitterrooters Against the Racetrack. We have close to 1,500 signatures against the track now."

For Cochran, who is in her 80s, it is not a matter of opposing the sport of motor racing. It is the enjoyment of the home to which she moved 17 years ago and in which she plans to spend the rest of her life.

Photo by Chad Harder
With Kootenai Canyon and St. Mary's Peak well within earshot of the high-revving engines, the proposed Bitterroot Valley Motor Sports Complex may affect more than the local residents.

"There will be campers out there and porta-potties, and they'll have beer and wine," she says. "The noise and the dust and having to look at all that. There'll be so much traffic and congestion on our road."

But Hanson and other members of the beleaguered BVMSA believe it has found a home, and its members are not backing down in the face of neighborhood objections.

"This time we're working with a private landowner, and he's 100 percent behind us," says Hanson. "We're planning a quality facility with plenty of trees and sound abatement-a place for families."

The BVMSA planned a season of stock car and motorcycle racing in Ravalli County earlier this year. In February, they signed a contract with the Ravalli County Fair Board to lease a 40-acre site on county land next to the fairgrounds. But when the deal was announced, neighborhood reaction was immediate and adamantly opposed to the track.

Citing a lack of public notice for a decision that was of "significant public interest," the county commissioners directed the fair board to rescind the contract. The commissioners then took over consideration of the proposal, with a public comment period and a public meeting. Then they voted unanimously to reject the racetrack, citing the need to use the land for other purposes and the possible incompatibility of the track with a trade center complex, which may be built at the fairgrounds sometime in the future.

The commissioners went on record as supporting the concept of a motor sports complex, but told the group they needed to find an area farther from town that was compatible with the needs of stock car and motorcycle racing.

Now, a few months later, the BVMSA has started construction on the new site. Financial plans and site plans are completed, and the group is acquiring off-highway access to alleviate excess traffic on Kootenai Creek Road. A slate of 15 to 20 events-both stock car and motorcycle races-is planned for May through September of next year.

For her part, Cochran wants the group to consider finding a third location "away from Kootenai Creek Road." "To think they would use such beautiful country like that," she says. "We're not against racing. It should just be out where there are no residences."

But in Ravalli County, the fastest-growing county in Montana, finding an uninhabited area without residential neighbors is getting to be an impossibility. And because the county does not have a comprehensive plan or any county-wide planning/zoning regulations, conflicts inevitably occur.

Last week, Bitterrooters for Planning, a local grassroots organization, took out quarter-page ads in two local newspapers. A map of the county showed stock cars alongside the name of each town. "Motor Racetrack Complex. Coming to a location near you?" was the accompanying text.

BFP president Stewart Brandborg says the ad was not against motor sports, per se; it was to point out the complete lack of planning in the county and the possibility of future conflict if a county-wide comprehensive plan is not adopted soon.

"We had a lot of fine response to the ad," Brandborg says. "We're not against a racetrack. We're just talking about the proper place to put it and other development. These things need to be done within a planning perspective. How do we proceed in the absence of planning?"

Brandborg and his group want the commissioners to take the existing summary of a county plan back to the planning board for revision and review. Following a final series of public meetings, he says, it would be desirable for the commissioners to finally adopt such a plan.

"Private property rights are being jeopardized by what is going on," Brandborg notes. "Planning protects private property rights. The racetrack issue brings a sharp focus to these problems."

Hanson says the BVMSA wants everyone to know how the track will benefit the community. The group has already approached driver education teachers and other groups who may be able to use the track. He anticipates car shows, swap meets and other community events at the track in the future.

Cochran, meanwhile, says BAR members have written numerous personal letters to Cumming, the leasing landowner, but have not had any positive response. "When we wrote him," she says, "we told him we might have a few weeks or months left to live, and we didn't ever plan on spending the last part of our lives looking at a racetrack."


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