Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Two years after denying a Target Range subdivision, Missoula County and the developer have reached a settlement agreement that could release all claims if it holds together.

It could also force the county to reconsider the project.

Deputy county attorney John Hart on Tuesday said the agreement reached between Missoula County and Tai Tam LLC stems from the county's decision in 2021 to deny the subdivision application for McCauley Meadows.

In doing so, the county concluded that the 18-lot subdivision on 28 acres in the Target Range neighborhood didn't mitigate for the loss of agricultural soils, nor did it mitigate for loss of wildlife habitat.

The project was heavily opposed by area residents and the Montana Audubon Society, which said the development would abut a 278-acre conservation easement on McCauley Butte – a prominent landmark in the Missoula Valley. The development would also lead to the fragmentation of the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area, opponents said.

“The subdividers sued Missoula County, arguing the decision to deny was arbitrary, capricious and unlawful, and that it violated state and federal constitutional limitations,” Hart said. “Rather than answer the suit, the county filed a motion to dismiss.”

The county's motion to dismiss was granted in Missoula District Court and the issue looked to be resolved. But Tai Tam LLC appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, which overturned the District Court ruling in November.

“We're back to at a point where this lawsuit will go forward,” Hart said. “But we've had some preliminary discussions with Tai Tam's legal counsel to explore a way to settle this lawsuit.”

Tai Tam LLC initially sought damages from the county for lost profits. The county was reluctant to pay those damages, so the parties looked to other remedies.

One of those remedies could have the county approve the very project it denied in 2021, Hart said.

“We came to a design that's still a 14-lot subdivision. What's changed is that rather than four additional lots platted along McCauley Butte, there will only be one additional lot on the butte with some very significant exterior architectural limitations on it,” Hart said. “Hopefully it will blend in if something is built on that lot.”

Most of the project would sit at the base of McCauley Butte.
Most of the project would sit at the base of McCauley Butte.

The initial project had proposed a number of platted lots on the butte. Under the agreement, however, three of them will be moved to the valley floor. But that could also have negative outcomes, the county believes. Moving the lots will increase the subdivision's impacts on prime agricultural soils.

But Hart said the county's argument on that front may be mute since the Legislature in 2021 restricted local governments from considering agricultural soils during subdivision review.

“I think that legislation was directed at Missoula County,” said commissioner Josh Slotnick. “Some of the same personalities were involved.”

The agreement between the county and Tai Tam also requires a public review process. Hart said that was added intentionally.

“This is a deliberate decision by both parties. It was important that we do this in the sunshine,” Hart said. “This was a controversial subdivision and we wanted to settle it in the sunshine.”

During the required public hearing, according to the agreement, Missoula County may consider any public comment and relevant information to make changes to the revised subdivision application.

If the county does make changes, Tai Tam can either accept them or proceed with litigation. The hearing is set for June 8.

“If they reject the changes, the (agreement) would have no merit,” Hart said. “We'd have to go back and continue litigation.”