Friday, October 12, 2012


The October Valier Town Council meeting was at lunch time, which meant that the senior citizens were still eating so the council was pushed off to the side and I sat much closer than usual.  It was a relaxed meeting and I ended up talking too much, one of my besetting sins, but it was interesting.

One of the first subjects is a recurring one.  A certain kind of citizen wants to impose high standards of yard care on everyone.  Their justification is usually fire danger or weed control, but there is always a dark undercurrent of wanting anyone nonconforming or neglectful to be eliminated from the town. The remedy always comes down to sending a letter, going in to forcibly cut grass and weeds (city crew or a hired person), and fines of draconian amounts.  One amount mentioned was $300 for every day of noncompliance, which strikes me as more like the fees a judge might impose a dangerous coal mine than a fine for tall grass in a dinky hamlet so rural that my most problematic weed is alfalfa. 

To many people here there is a moral component to appearance that is as interesting as it is menacing.  They get magnetized, obsessed.  Lynch mob mentality over knee-high vegetation.  I told them about a town I lived in briefly, where lawns are rigidly controlled as to height and even greenness (a reference color card is carried by inspectors).  The standards were strictly golf-course, without any awareness of the poisonous chemicals and costs of achieving them.  Someone pointed out that the fallow land around the lake is always seeding the town with weeds.

An interesting diversion was thinking about how boys used to mow lawns by hand in summer -- but now lawns are mowed by adults, partly because of the cost of a riding mower which seems required.  Therefore the cost is much higher than it once was.  And there is a strange dynamic that causes people to willingly plow out snow for the neighbors, but not to mow grass.  This led to the suggestion that with a little leadership, maybe our high school kids would mow lawns as a good will project.

A related issue is that of clearing the alleys of all intrusions, which is something Northwestern electricity and gas wants done.  The town had made a list of all these and taken photos.  Most of the problems were trees and vehicles.  There are half-a-dozen structures, mostly in the older part of town along the spine of the main street, Montana St., and dating back to many decades ago when small structures were built higgledy-piggledy, surveyed by-guess-and-by-golly, and connected underground by as-the-worm-crawls webwork.  An example is the former mayor’s lot, which contains one of the offending structures.  It dates back to a pre-existing trailer court in the post-war days when one supplied a “wash house” with compartments for toilet, shower, and sink, and laundry facilities along the lines of big tubs and wringer-washers.  No doubt moving it will mean dealing with drains and pipes underneath.

The utility company wants the town to be their interface, but the most potent and effective threat would simply be the refusal of utility service.  Discommoded citizens point out that the utility has always been able to work around the same intrusions for decades in the past.  It is a sudden and unexpected cost.  The people in the older homes are not generally the high-income folks.

The next item was a request for the town to upgrade the shooting range, which is in fact outside the city limits.  Our new deputy is sponsoring classes for handguns, but there is interest in a range that could accommodate rifles beyond .22’s.  The NRA has grants available.  Since one of the town council members is a deputy, I asked how many people in town had concealed weapon gun permits.  He said hundreds.  (The population is between 350 and 450, including women and children.)  Evidently gun permits are nearly universal in Valier.

This brought up a discussion of why.  I personally keep no gun.  I figure by the time I unlock a safety box, find the ammo (which is supposed to be stored separately), and load the gun, it would make more sense to just pick up the phone.  If I were on an isolated ranch, it might be different.  Immediately everyone in the room launched on a defense of guns.

The consensus was that this felt need to be armed is partly because of the publicity about the disorder brought in by the oil drilling at the Montana/Dakota border, and partly because of the impassioned rhetoric about the right to carry guns that is always stirred up by national elections.  The deputy pointed out that his DARE anti-drug program in the schools is partly funded by money paid for gun permits.  Since then at least one woman has told me that she never leaves the house without her gun in her pocket.  She lives out on acreage and has good reasons to use a rifle or shotgun.  I no longer go walking at night because of worry about inflamed vigilantes, I told her, and she brought me up to date on the young grizzly who is prowling around the edges of the lake.  (I hope it’s not freaked out on drugs, which is possible if it’s been darted and moved in the past.)

We went back to serious problems with derelict buildings.  One can hardly be described as a structure since it is a sort of lean-to jumble that includes cars, worthy of Hill 57.  It was the refuge of a sick old man who was finally moved into subsidized housing and has subsequently died.  There is some kind of legal question interfering with razing it.

On the highway is a big ancient warehouse belonging to another old man who has died.  He had partitioned off part of it to live in and filled some of it with dangerous substances.  Relatives came and spent the summer “cleaning up” which consisted of removing recyclables, leaving all the worthless trash and stealing the town’s water meter.  No forwarding address.  The main recourse the town has in all these cases is to attach the property with a lien to be paid on the sale of the property.  There is now some question about whether we’ve been doing this legally.  The approach is proper, but the steps may have not been followed properly.

This complex of dilemmas gets at the whole difficulty of managing property ownership in a settled community with defined grids, semi-occupied buildings, infrastructure, changing standards over the decades,  and the human emotional supra-structure of status and survival.  The same problems exist out in the country, but no one cares very much.  And yet people move to Valier, seeing only a peaceful surface with a lot of gray-haired people.  They don’t understand what’s in their pockets.

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