City considers vacating 12th street for elementary school construction

By Sarah Pridgeon

While surveying the site for the new Sundance elementary school, Ken Rathbun of Bearlodge Engineering came across an unexpected complication. An old stretch of road between the football field and the high school was never vacated by the city, leaving a strip of city-owned land in the middle of the proposed construction site.

The “road” is not currently used as a right-of-way; it is neither patrolled by the city police nor plowed during the winter, no ordinances appear to exist that relate to it and no speed limits have been applied along it. The city, in fact, was unaware of its ownership until last week’s meeting of the council.

The road in question is the part of 12th Street between Cleveland Street and Fairgrounds Loop Road, which currently serves as a small parking lot from which locals can watch the football games. From Rathbun’s research, it appears that Fairground Loop was dedicated to replace it in 1987, during the process of building the high school.

“In 1987, the high school was built with the parking lots situated between the high school and the football field. They decided the street that had been dedicated when they did the fairground addition the previous year was in the wrong place,” said Rathbun.

“They changed where the street that comes off Cleveland Street was located.”

Rathbun showed the council a plat that should have been filed at the County Courthouse at the same time. This would have vacated the portion of 12th Street that had been replaced by the Fairground Loop.

“12th Street was never vacated,” he said.

“The gist of it is that, right now, the city still has two city streets…As it is right now, the school district owns a sliver of land between those two streets and, technically, it’s probably in their way.”

Whether the road really is in the way will depend on how the architects decide to plan the new school, but its presence would likely affect the size and placement.

“It’s a necessary step for the school district to be able to represent who owns the property in that area,” said Mark Hughes, representing attorney for both the city and school district.

“They need as much of that land as possible in order to build the grade school there. From my understanding, Kenny was thinking that it had at one point been vacated, but he can’t find any evidence of that and I doubt that there is any.”

Rathbun approached the council to request that this housekeeping issue be addressed, vacating the right-of-way to return it to the ownership of its nearest neighbor: the school district. He noted that the School Facilities Commission had called it a “due diligence” issue before planning for the elementary school gets fully underway.

“It would be beneficial to the school district if we could get that road vacated in order to place that new building there,” added Tom Necklason, Facilities Manager.

Hughes noted that the city still has access to Fairgrounds Loop road and may not need an additional right-of-way.

“I don’t see how it jeopardizes the transportation plan of the town, I think we have good access,” he said.

“The only reservation I have is if the School Facilities Commission for some reason does not approve that as a location for the school [but] I think they need it vacated to show the square footage is large enough to possibly construct a brand new elementary school.”

Council Member Sheryl Klocker wondered why 12th Street was not vacated during the 1987 process, in “one fell swoop.” She commented that, “Once you give up right of way, you never get it back.”

“It seems a little bit odd to me that you would have this dedicated road on Fairgrounds Loop and then 12th Street would still be there. It seems like it’s kind of superfluous – to be honest with you, I always assumed it was school property,” added Hughes.

The Land Use Commission had approved the proposal to vacate at their most recent meeting and recommended that the city go ahead with the process.

“Land Use felt that it behooved the city to complete that vacation,” explained Steve Lenz, Land Use.

“It appeared to us fairly clear that that was the intent back when the high school was built and it just slipped through the cracks.”

The council voted to authorize Hughes to move forward with the process of vacating the portion of 12th Street between Cleveland Street and Fairground Loop. As vacating the road does mean that the city is giving up something of value, the two-month statutory procedure will include a public hearing.