Montana Heritage Commission Executive Director Elijah Allen said construction on the new Information Center at the east end of town should be finished by December 1, with gas flowing from the pumps by about Christmas. (R. Colyer)

Virginia City: Solar panels denied, town hall to move?

Potential new historic grant, prep for winter also on the agenda

VIRGINIA CITY—The Virginia City town council held its monthly meeting on Thursday, November 1, resolving an issue that has been on at least three council agendas this year.


Solar Panels

Rick Salmonsen applied for a variance to the town ordinance that prohibits solar panels earlier this summer but did so after around 500 square feet of panels had already been installed on the roof of his garage, visible from at least three streets in Virginia City. Several of Salmonsen’s neighbors attended Thursday’s meeting to express both support and opposition of the installation.

“The sign on the way out of town says, ‘Virginia City: resisting change since 1863,’” said one neighbor, Victor Bunitsky. “I believe in that. We have rules and we have to abide by those.”

Elijah Allen, also a neighbor of Salmonsen’s offered another perspective.

“I think there could be a compromise,” he said. “I’m okay with viewing it from my house, but we do want to keep the integrity of Virginia City.”

The council discussed several alternative locations for the panels, including Salmonsen building the roof of his garage out in such a way as to make the panels less visible; putting the panels on a hillside near his house or installing them in a location outside the town’s historic district as the beginning of a community “solar farm.”

“We’re not anti-solar; we’re pro Virginia City,” said Bunitsky.

“The bottom line is, we’re here to decide on an ordinance variation,” said councilwoman Erin Leonard. “Everyone here believes in solar energy, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.”

The board then voted unanimously to deny the variance application, meaning that the solar panels at the residence must be removed before December 1.


Town Hall

Members of the Virginia City Elks Lodge attended Thursday’s meeting to offer their comments on the proposed option to move the Virginia City town hall offices into the Elks building farther down Wallace Street.

The proposal was made by historic preservation officer Jim Jarvis in an effort to offer additional stakeholders in the maintenance and preservation of the historic Elks building. But it was noted on Thursday that if the Elks allowed the town offices to move in without the express approval from the state Department of Justice, they would be at risk of losing both their gambling and liquor licenses, which are used for a variety of events hosted in the building.

There was also the question of whether the Elks offered enough space for the offices. The planned move to the old fire department building offers significantly more space than the offices currently occupied by the town hall, which are near the current Virginia City Fire Department.

“The driver behind this transfer of location has always been to free up space for the Fire Department,” noted mayor Justin Gatewood. “I don’t necessarily think the marriage between the Elks and the town government is a great marriage.”

The board decided to continue moving forward with the renovations to the old fire hall for their offices, although it was noted that brainstorming would continue as to how to best support the Elks in their maintenance of the historic building.

Other business at the Virginia City council’s November meeting included:

• A Montana Heritage Commission update from executive director Elijah Allen. Allen said the updating of the walking paths from gravel to railroad tracks in Discovery Park was complete and noted that the Heritage Commission would be working on a project to add more seasonal housing before next summer’s tourist season. He also said construction on the new information center at the east end of town should be finished by December 1, and that hopefully gasoline would be flowing to pumps at the center by Christmas.

• Allen also said that he has received nine applications from parties interested in taking over as concessionaires for the historic Bale of Hay Saloon. The Heritage Commission has earmarked $10,000 to upgrade the facility, potentially allowing it to operate year-round. Five percent of the revenue at the saloon will go toward supporting the Virginia City Fire Department.

• Public works director Bob Erdall said that the grading of roads and cleaning of culverts for wintertime was nearly finished, and that Virginia City’s skating rink is up, largely due to the help of local volunteers. Erdall also said that the 3 Rivers fiberoptic project in Virginia City should be up and running by next spring. 

• Historic preservation officer Jarvis proposed to the council a potential grant opportunity for the preservation of some of the town’s historic buildings. The Save America’s Treasures program provides federal funding to maintain historic sites, and while the funding is competitive, Jarvis noted that Stonewall Hall on Wallace Street would be an apt candidate.

• Gatewood announced the dates for some of Virginia City’s annual winter events, including Winter Fest, which will be held on January 5 and 6 and the annual hockey tournament, which will take place January 11-13. 

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