Committee authorizes mayor to sign agreement for purchase of railroad property

By Martin Kidston

Members of the Missoula City Council this week authorized the mayor to sign an agreement with Montana Rail Link that could lead to the purchase of 12 urban acres as a future park and possible workforce housing complex.

The request, approved last week by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, passed the council’s Administration and Finance Committee on a unanimous vote – a move that places it on the consent agenda at the next City Council meeting.

“The parks department has an emphasis on buying and building parks of at least 5 acres in size, and it’s really hard to find anything like that,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “It’s a chance to fill in the trail connection, and it’s a substantial amount of land to build a good park.”

MRA Director Ellen Buchanan said central Missoula, where the property is located, lacks open space and park land. The 12-acre property also represents the last remaining break in the Bitterroot Branch Trail, which extends roughly 50 miles from downtown Missoula to Hamilton.

Acquiring the property, which sits between North and South avenues, would enable the city to complete the trail while it makes plans for the park and any housing development that could be explored at a future date.

“We’ve been working for years with MRL to try and get a trail to make the last connection in the Bitterroot Branch Trail that’s lacking in that system,” said Buchanan. “Once the pedestrian bridge over South Reserve is complete, this will be the only gap in the trail.”

By signing the agreement, the city has up to 120 days to scope the property for environmental hazards stemming from its historic use as an industrial property.

If the city is satisfied with the results of that assessment, it would consider issuing roughly $2 million in tax increment financing bonds from Urban Renewal District III. The funding would be enough to purchase the property and cover the cost of building the trail.

“If everything turns out to be acceptable to the city, the proposal would come back to City Council for authorization of purchase of the property,” said Buchanan. “The $2 million represents just under $4 a square foot, which is very much below what properties are in the urban areas of Missoula.”

For several years, the city has worked with MRL in hopes of gaining an easement across the property to complete the trail. Last week, however, Mayor John Engen announced that MRL had agreed to sell the property at less than the market value.

As envisioned, MRA would also apply $389,000 remaining in the 1995 Open Space Bond to help with the property’s purchase. Buchanan said the purchase would include the necessary funds to complete the trail connection, though construction of the park would come later.

“How we deal with the rest of the property needs to take some time,” said Buchanan. “MRL owns all of the land and some of the buildings on the property. We think there may be opportunity to do a model mix-use, mixed-income project there in conjunction with a new park being built.”

What happens next depends on the results of the environmental assessment, Buchanan said. If the property comes up clean, the city is likely to issue bonds and make the purchase. If remediation is required, it would likely result in further negotiations with MRL.

As it stands, Buchanan said, URD III has the capacity to cover the debt.

“We’re seeing revenue grow in that district every year,” Buchanan said. “I can’t imagine any circumstance in which a park wouldn’t be built on that property.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com