Jennifer Noonan had barely introduced herself to Butte-Silver Bow commissioners when she started crying.
Over the next two minutes, through tears, she pleaded with them to do something — anything — to stop an Oklahoma corporation from putting a big truck stop along Interstate 90 near her home in Ramsay.
Just word of its plans to locate 7 miles west of Butte dropped the value of her house by $35,000, she said during a recent council meeting, and who would buy it now anyway?
"I am a single mom with two little girls," Noonan said. "My number-one job in life is to be the best mom I can be and protect my kids. How am I supposed to do that with a truck stop right across the street?
"You worry about drugs, you worry about prostitutes, sex trafficking — everything," she said, adding that she can't afford to sell her house after a $35,000 hit on its value, and neither can anyone else in Ramsay.
There are only about 40 houses in Ramsay, most nestled together along six streets, with only one going in and out off of Miles Crossing — a frontage road that connects with a diamond I-90 interchange.
"They have taken away every single choice we have, and it's not right just because they have money," she said.
Love's doesn't look at it that way, of course — not when it first announced its plans for a Travel Stop at Ramsay, and not now.
And they say they're still on the way.
"We plan to break ground this summer and open for business early next year," Kealey Dorian, a spokeswoman for Love's Travel Stop & Country Stores based in Oklahoma City, said in an email to The Montana Standard.
"We continue to work through the remainder of the permitting process and we will gain final approvals once our final plans have been submitted this spring," she said.
Its announced plans included a 9,000-square-foot store with space for two food franchises, a 9,000-square-foot tire center, and 137 parking spaces for tractor trailers.
It would mean 60 to 80 jobs, ranging from part-time to a handful of managerial positions, and all employees start above minimum wage and get benefits, company officials have said.
Love's opened its first Montana location along I-90 in Hardin, about 45 miles east of Billings, last June. The one at Ramsay could be the second Montana location, but Love's has more than 440 travel stops now in 41 other states.
Nationwide, the company searches for land along interstates and highways in close proximity to heavy traffic and commercial areas, Dorian said in her email.
"We identify property that will safely and conveniently serve the community and our customers," she said. "We work with local authorities throughout the development process to meet the needs of each location. Once the store is open, we believe in being involved in the community.
"We look forward to opening in Ramsay and serving the community."
Not a done deal — yet
Most in the community still don't want it, but it's not clear whether they can do anything to stop it.
To give themselves a fighting chance, many of them pooled money and hired the Helena law firm of Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola last year.
Attorney David "Kim" Wilson is handling the case.
Wilson said Love's had a boundary survey done recently that was filed with Butte-Silver Bow County.
"So I assume they are going forward," he said. "I haven't heard otherwise."
Love's initially proposed a site on 15 to 18 acres of open land east of Ramsay, starting at just across Palmer Street — the town's most easterly street and way into town. That put some of the site in a residential zone, which would have required a variance from the county's zoning board and a hearing allowing public input.
Love's says it later moved the site at least 500 feet to the east, which put it entirely within a commercial zone. That meant they would not have to rezone the property or get a variance.
The land is owned by an LLC whose principal is Ted Ogle, owner of the nearby Montana Livestock Auction, and he has agreed to sell it to Love's. The recent survey boundary creates a parcel of record that can be sold.
Lori Casey, Butte-Silver Bow's planning director, said much of that parcel is not zoned — period. That means it's not subject to any zoning regulations. All the buildings for the truck stop could fit in that area, she said, but she wasn't sure if the parking lot for trucks could as well.
Wilson said he's not sure what Love's has in mind for its final site plan, so it's hard to know what zoning regulations are in play.
Ramsay residents say some local and state zoning laws can be interpreted as presenting procedural hurdles for Love's, a case they tried to make before commissioners recently.
In particular, they say commissioners can establish emergency zoning regulations when public safety or health is at stake. And it clearly is, they claim.
They say the truck stop will bring noise and light pollution and crime.
The overpass at the I-90 interchange to Ramsay will now be crowded with big semis, they say, making it unsafe for kids who live on the other side of the highway to use it for biking or walking to school, as they do now.
Some truckers already drive into Ramsay thinking they're heading to Silver Bow, even though it dead-ends, residents say. More will come in now thinking it's the way to the truck stop, and there's no room to turn around.
Casey said any emergency zoning rules would have to be established by commissioners, and she wasn't aware of that ever happening here.
Wilson said such rules were possible "in theory," but he had never handled a case where they were in play.
"It's a relatively large development that is somewhat dropping through the regulatory cracks," he said.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has said Love's will likely need one or more permits from its agency, including one for underground gasoline storage tanks.
DEQ spokeswoman Jenifer Garcin said Thursday that Love's had not filed any formal applications for permits, but the company has had discussions with agency staff about storage tanks and a possible lagoon.
Lagoons are often used to capture and stabilize wastewater, store it during winter months, and have it applied for agricultural purposes during warmer months. They do come with ongoing management requirements in Montana.
Dorian, the Love's representative, said the company continues "to work with Montana DEQ to finish gaining the remainder of our permits, including a permit for a lagoon."
Some residents say there are ramp and interstate issues as well.
When asked if Love's had any remaining zoning issues to address or had made any inquiries to state transportation officials, Dorian answered both by saying it continues to work through the permitting process,
Ramsay folks not alone
Love's already has more than 440 travel stops across the nation, so it is accustomed to regulatory hurdles and — at some places — opposition.
In 2015, it dropped plans of locating a truck stop off of I-90 by Livingston, 26 miles east of Bozeman. Many residents and businesses were opposed to it, but in that case, city officials had a direct say. Love's needed the city to approve an annexation request for the site, but commissioners voted it down.
Many residents in Grand Island, New York, are fighting a proposed Love's truck stop on 21 acres of vacant commercial land along I-190 there — 2,026 miles from Ramsay. The Niagara River splits around the island, which is only about 30 square miles and is the U.S. gateway to Niagara Falls about 3 miles upstream.
Love's says its travel center there would attract tens of thousands of drivers off I-190 every year and bring more visitors to a planned multi-million-dollar welcome center being built by the state.
It would generate about $1.5 million a year in sales and property tax revenue annually, according to a law firm representing Love's there, and create 40 to 65 full-time jobs, among other benefits.
But many residents are vehemently opposed to it, saying it would bring pollution, noise, and increased traffic and would dramatically change the character and environment of Grand Island.
There might be several ways to stop it, but just in case, the town's supervisor is proposing a new local law that would define "travel plazas" and ban them outright.
Judy Schmidt, who has lived in Grand Island for decades, is among locals opposed to the truck stop there. She's been to Montana, and her great-great-grandfather homesteaded in Forsythe.
She feels for the folks in Ramsay.
"In Montana, you can go miles and miles and miles, and there's nothing," she said. "Why they had to pick a spot right next to this cozy little town is beyond me."
Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow's chief executive, said he thought Love's might have dropped its plans until he heard recently that the boundary survey had been filed.
"It's not going to be a huge economic development thing for Butte-Silver Bow," he said. "We're not enticing them to come by any means. But legally, we can't say, 'No, you can't come.'"