Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Calling it a legacy project that only comes along once in a generation, the Missoula City Council and Missoula County commissioners on Wednesday approved tapping into the Open Space Bond to purchase 480 acres on Marshall Mountain.

Doing so commits the two governments to manage and maintain the property at a cost estimated at $424,000 annually by 2026 after certain development occurs, including trails and other recreational projects.

Now months in the making, the decision drew wide support from those in attendance, many of them representing certain groups including Run Wild Missoula, Backcountry Horseman of Missoula, Five Valleys Land Trust, Climate Smart Missoula and Mountain Bike Missoula, among others.

Despite concerns over property taxes, most spoke of the property's value and potential, and its economic importance.

“I really feel the tax burden that some people are concerned about here. But at the same time, the reason I was able to grow my company here in Missoula is because I was able to grow this incredible workforce,” one man said. “This does cost money, and it will cost money going forward in our community, but it's a well-worth investment that will return its value to us over and over again.”

The Marshall Mountain property includes three individual parcels, each under different ownership. The total cost of acquiring the land stands at $3.2 million, while preparing the site for public use will cost $600,000. Other costs, including appraisal, legal and closing fees bring the price to $3.8 million.

The bulk of the funding comes from the 2018 Open Space Bond, with the city and county contributing $1 million each. While voters have already approved the bond, a portion of it hasn't yet been sold and hasn't yet appeared on property taxes, though it will in the coming months.

Grants and other funding sources will also be applied to the project, officials said. Similar bonds were passed by earlier generations and used to acquire the open space surrounding Missoula, from Blue Mountain to Mount Sentinel.

“I suspect there were naysayers decades ago when it was contemplated to move those properties into public ownership,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “This is a big deal to the community. This is something that Missoulians and Missoula County residents have already spoken on.”

The base of Marshall Mountain. (Google Earth)
The base of Marshall Mountain. (Google Earth)

According to the city, it currently costs around $217 a year to maintain 1 acre of the city's current conservation lands and around $3,140 a year to maintain 1 acre at Fort Missoula Regional Park. In comparison, the city said it will cost an estimated $883 a year to maintain 1 acre at Marshall Mountain.

The City Council supported the acquisition on a 9-2 vote, which includes spending $1 million from its share of the Open Space Bond while also committing to the long-term costs.

“To me this is a legacy project, and this is our one shot at it,” said council member Gwen Jones. “It's important that future generations have these opportunities.”

Not all in favor

Wednesday's vote only approves spending funding from the Open Space Bond and a decision on actually buying the property is still pending, the county has said. The land hasn't been appraised and other procedural hurdles must still be crossed.

But not all members of the public - and not all City Council members - supported the purchase and committing taxpayers to the long-term costs. However, their concerns were outweighed by the those in support.

Several accused the city and county of being hypocritical over taxes, noting how they frequently argue on one hand that property taxes are out of control – and blaming the state for it – while on the other hand committing taxpayers to more costs in the years ahead.

Buying Marshall Mountain is a want, not a need, they said.

“Every year the City of Missoula has gone to a budget meeting, Parks and Recreation has let it be known that they're backlogged. Why would we want to dig another hole because the first one isn't deep enough?” one man said. “ You've got the City of Missoula taxpayers who are also county taxpayers. I think if the county wants to pursue this Marshall Mountain thing, let the county pursue it, but the city should back off.”

Cost estimates as presented by the City and County of Missoula.
Cost estimates as presented by the City and County of Missoula.

Others also noted the vast swath of city-owned open space ringing the Missoula Valley and the even deeper stretch of public land that lies beyond. To those who want Marshall Mountain for a mountain bike park, a learn-to-ski park, or for hiking, there are other public lands that are already free and available, they said.

But concern over rising taxes was the leading concern among opponents who spoke on Wednesday. Council members John Contos and Sandra Vasecka opposed the purchase, saying the city would likely struggle to cover the costs down the road.

“As a lot of my colleagues have said, we're doing this through the lens of future generations and that we value our children. I agree, and I don't think we should continually raise property taxes so our kids can't afford a home here,” said Vasecka. “We're taxing people out of their homes. We live in western Montana. We don't need government to tell us to go and recreate. Just go do it.”