Scores of citizens described by a state transportation official as “caught off guard” turned out Tuesday near Three Forks to protest plans for a new rest area they have been told is pretty much a “done deal,” even before ground is broken later this summer.

About halfway through the three-hour informational “open house” – held just around the corner from the proposed rest area site near the Interstate 90/Highway 287 interchange – Montana Department of Transportation District Administrator William Fogarty said the comments he was hearing were “all negative.”

“The biggest one is ‘why wasn’t feedback’ allowed (before the project was approved)?’” he said.

Paul Finlayson, who lives in the Wheatland Meadows subdivision near the proposed rest area, was one of those asking the question.

“The general public has no say-so,” he said. “We’re wasting our time being here.”

His sentiments were shared by other area residents, who showed little interest in the architectural plans, project timelines, and other informational displays scattered around the meeting space in the Headwaters Livestock building on Wheatland Road. Instead, they demanded answers from Fogarty and representatives of Montana Rest Area JV Partners, a partnership of C.A. Rickert & Associates and Diamond Construction, Inc., which plans to break ground on the project as soon as next month.

“I feel like we’re getting ramrodded,” said Finlayson, who took issue with the lack of public notice before MDT agreed to swap its existing rest area at the I-90/19th Street interchange in Bozeman in exchange for the Highway 287 site and newly constructed rest area and $1.1 million.

Fogarty acknowledged that the usual public notification process was not followed while the deal was being hammered out under a “Design-Build” procurement process, which requires a certain level of confidentiality to ensure the integrity of the competitive bidding process.

“From a business decision perspective, it made financial sense,” Fogarty said.

Had they been allowed to weigh in before the deal was sealed, project neighbors say they would have expressed their concerns over what they believe is the unsuitability of the site for a rest area.

Lori Ridley, another Wheatland Meadows resident, said her No. 1 concern is fire that could be sparked by a semi-truck or trucker tossing a cigarette out the window. The Wheatland area is served by the Three Forks Volunteer Fire Department, and she fears the department’s response time wouldn’t be quick enough to stop such a fire before it spread to the subdivision and endangered homes.

Ridley and her husband Rich also fear that the traffic mitigation planned by MDT – a left-turn lane from Highway 287 into the rest area – isn’t adequate to ensure safety on the busy highway.

Other neighbors fear that the rest stop will spur more crime in an area that already sees a fair amount of prostitution and drug activity.

“We don’t have the public services to take care of this,” said Ryan Ewan.

Broadwater County Sheriff Wynn Meehan said the invitation for him to attend Tuesday’s open house was the first official notification he received about the planned rest area.

“I’m not in favor of having it here, but now we’re stuck with it,” he said.

Meehan said three Broadwater County deputies are assigned to the southern portion of the county, including the Wheatland area, but the rapidly growing population in the vicinity continues to stretch department resources.

Discussions about locating a satellite public safety office in southern Broadwater County have been ongoing for some time, Meehan said, but there still is no approved plan to proceed with building one.

“If that was part of the plan, it probably would have eliminated 90 percent of the (public) concerns,” he said.

Meehan said he isn’t opposed to rest areas in general, but together with development coming directly across highway, the facility will increase demands on his deputies.

And like the project’s neighbors, Meehan said he isn’t happy about not being consulted during earlier stages of the planning.

“These folks had conversation with the (Broadwater County) commission, but they didn’t talk to me. Nobody has called me, no one’s stopped into my office,” he said.

In terms of ensuring public safety, “I’m the one that’s responsible, not anybody else,” he added. “We’re just going to have to swallow the pill.”

Craig Rickert, the project’s developer, said he also plans to turn the current Bozeman rest area site into a retail area after the land swap with DOT is completed. He also will be working to bring retail and/or technical manufacturing development to the east side Highway 287, across from the planned new rest area. He said “the rest area is part of what will bring improvements to this area,” including “a satellite law enforcement office or workforce housing.”

In response to other citizen concerns, Rickert said Tuesday, “This is the safest rest area MDT has ever designed.” He cited the plans for the installation of license plate and security cameras, increased parking space, and room for expansion, if needed.

Rickert said he first proposed the idea of a swap to MDT in 2016, when he was attempting to purchase the property adjacent to the rest area on Simmental Way in Bozeman. The rest area property was attractive because it would have allowed him to secure access to the Simmental Way parcel from North 19th Avenue.

Since then, he said, his purchase contract on the Simmental property fell through, and the Simmental Way parcel is now owned by Bozeman Health.