Missoula County sees family transfer request as means to skirt subdivision review

A man’s request to transfer a piece of his property to his 7 year-old daughter was denied this week by Missoula County commissioners, who saw the move as an effort to skirt the county’s subdivision regulations.

Cody Weisenburger purchased the 11-acre property in the Elk Meadows Ranchettes in 2014. On Thursday, he asked commissioners to approve his request to separate roughly 6 of those acres through a family transfer for his daughter.

Weisenburger said he wanted to complete the process now, fearing the cost of land, changing regulations or other circumstances would prevent him from doing so in the future.

“I have the extra money right now to be able do what I want to do to get this done,” he said. “If I don’t do it now, I’d never do it and it might be unreachable if I wait.”

Completing the family transfer now, Weisenburger said, would help his daughter’s financial future.

“In this sense, it’s my way of saving for my daughter, something to build value over time,” he said. “If she wants to build a house there some day, I’d build a house there for her. If she wants to sell it down the road for college, it’ll be worth value.”

While the area is unzoned, the county’s land-use plan calls for one house per 10 acres. In that sense, county staff said, Weisenburger’s request to split the lot in two would create a density beyond what’s permitted in the plan.

But staff also noted that five family transfers have taken place within the subdivision over the years, along with 6 minor subdivisions and 13 occasional sales. All resulted in new lots that were smaller than 10 acres in size.

“Everything being proposed today meets the letter of the law on the regulations here,” said Deputy County Attorney John Hart. “I can’t say there’s another tool available to the applicant here to achieve the kind of things he’s trying to achieve for his daughter.”

But commissioners disagreed, saying minor subdivision review would be the proper tool for dividing the property. They also saw discrepancies in Weisenburger’s request, noting that he didn’t immediately plan on building a house on the second lot until some point in the future, if at all.

That violated the spirit of the family transfer, commissioners said.

“The spirit of family transfers is that you’re truly providing that family member with a piece of property that that family member will probably reside on,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Even if it went into a trust, I don’t think that’s the spirit of what the law had in mind.”

Strohmaier said the occasional sales that have occurred in the past weren’t a good guide moving forward. The tool was discontinued because it was often misused to avoid subdivision review. Family transfers placed into a trust have also been abused, he said.

Commissioners urged Weisenburger to consider a subdivision review to complete his desire to split his property, or wait until his daughter was 18 and prepared to live on the adjoining lot.

“It’s hard not to see this right now as a cheaper way to subdivide into two pieces rather than to give a chunk of land to a family member to live on, which I believe is the spirit of the family transfer,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.