Hamilton School District to address access controversy

A construction project to improve access to Hamilton's Daly Elementary School left Terry and Claira Conyers' vintage pickup truck stuck in its garage. The controversy over the access issue will be addressed at the Hamilton School District's next school board meeting Tuesday, Sept. 10.

If you want to see 87-year-old Terry Conyers' face light up like a child’s, just have him raise the hood of his father’s 1957 Chevy pickup truck.

Conyers beams when he talks about the original parts that he used in the restoration of the pickup that’s been part of his life for almost as long as he can remember.

“My dad bought it new in 1957,” he said. “It still had all the handbooks in it. I put in a six-cylinder. …It’s all hopped up, with dual carbs. Everything is from the '50s.”

Conyers' back is bad now and he uses a walker to get around, but that hadn't stopped him from taking his prized pickup out for a spin a couple of times a week.

“It was his freedom,” said Conyers' granddaughter Autumn Brown. “It gave him independence.”

That all came to a halt a couple of weeks ago with the rebuilding of one of two driveways that will eventually be used by parents to drop their children off at Hamilton’s Daly School.

The upgraded road includes a curb that’s close to 3 feet higher than the short driveway to where Conyers' pickup is stored.

At this point, he can’t even get it completely out of the garage before running into the new berm.

The couple said they’ve tried to find some common ground with the school district’s superintendent, Tom Korst, but so far to no avail.

The matter goes before the Hamilton School Board on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 6:30 p.m.

“We are very aware of what happened,” Korst said in an interview. “The site was designed by our engineer and the construction company followed that design. The permit was approved by the city.”

Korst said he was surprised at the elevation gain.

“That’s something I wouldn’t have known by looking at the drawing,” he said. 

Korst said he will offer some options to the board Tuesday night, but won't make a recommendation. 

"I wanted to slow it down a little bit," Korst said Thursday. "I asked an attorney what our options are and we're still researching those. … The bottom line is this is a private property access question."

Korst said the decision is the board’s to make.

“I can’t make this decision unilaterally,” he said. “I can’t give away school property. I can’t give easements. I’m not allowed to make that decision.”

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Once the construction is completed, Korst said the traffic on Mabel Lane will increase significantly.

Where previously the road was used by nine buses twice a day, under the new configuration it will become the primary route for parents dropping their children off at school and picking them afterward. Korst estimated that between 300 to 400 cars will be using that road on school days.

The footprint of a remodel and expansion of Daly Elementary was changed after city and county officials asked the district to consider moving the addition to the east to improve traffic flow by creating an entrance off Kurtz Lane instead of the narrower Daly Avenue.

The Conyers have lived at the corner of Kurtz Lane and a road on school property that people call Mabel Lane for 13 years in a home that was once part of the historic Kurtz dairy farm. When they moved in, the property was overgrown, and a small home at the back of the garage where Conyer’s truck is now stored was falling apart.

Today, their place is neat as a pin.

Brown said her grandparents have always tried to be good neighbors to the school and the community. They’ve kept the big cottonwood at the corner of the two streets trimmed high to ensure that bus drivers had a clear view. Parents of soccer players using the adjacent playing fields often park on their property.

The family has received an outpouring of support after a family member wrote a Facebook post explaining the situation. They said Hamilton’s mayor and the construction company have done what they could to accommodate their situation.

On Wednesday, Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf issued a statement that reiterated that Mabel Lane was a private driveway owned by the school district.

“Therefore, the City’s only role in this project is to approve the construction plans for compliance with City standards,” Farrenkopf wrote. “The City of Hamilton does not have any authority to grant or deny approaches on the bus service road.”

Farrenkopf said the project engineer notified the city on Aug. 21 the school district was designing curb laydowns to provide access to both the Conyers’ storage garage and the community garden located next door to the Conyers’ home.

The next day, Farrenkopf said the city’s public works director told the engineer the curb laydowns didn’t require a city permit.

“Please be assured that the City had no objection to the School District’s proposal to provide curb laydowns to the Conyers' property,” Farrenkopf wrote. “It is my understanding that the School District is continuing to work toward a positive solution regarding the Conyers' access onto Mabel Lane.”

The Conyers said the construction company initially built a ramp to their garage, but it was later removed.

“When he (Korst) came to talk with us, we told him it wasn’t only us who were being hurt,” Claira Conyers said. “There is an 80-year-old woman who used to come to the community garden. Since the curb appeared, we haven’t seen her.”

The family also worries potential flooding from snowmelt now that the road has been raised.

“We just need a little empathy here,” Brown said. “After all, this is Montana.”