Missoula can continue to protect the open spaces that provide an unmatched quality of life while also solving its housing affordability problem, a litany of government and nonprofit leaders and local citizens said Monday.

Their assurances came as the City Council debated whether to ask the Missoula County commissioners to place a $15 million open space bond on November’s general election ballot.

Council members agreed, voting 9-1 to recommend the countywide ballot measure and to instruct city staff to prepare an accompanying $500,000 mill levy request for the maintenance of existing city open space lands.

The lone naysayer, Ward 4 Councilman Jesse Ramos, insisted that Missoula has enough public land already – and displayed a map showing Missoula surrounded by national forest land and the city’s past open space purchases.

“I’m trying to fight for the little guy,” Ramos said, accusing his fellow council members of “turning Missoula into a country club.”

“Do we really want to be that exclusive?” he asked.

“We say on a daily basis that affordable housing is our top priority, but this bond contradicts that goal,” Ramos said. “If we care about affordable housing, we need to take a second look at this.”

The retort came quickly from Mayor John Engen, who countered each of Ramos’ arguments.

“There are a few flaws in the councilman’s arguments,” Engen said. “The first: $15 million is not going to take much developable land off the market. Most of this would not be developable land, and if it were, it would be incredibly expensive developable land upon which McMansions would sit” – not affordable housing complexes.

“The notion that affordable housing and open space are mutually exclusive doesn’t wash with me,” Engen said. “The beauty of this open space bond, coupled with the mill levy, is it will provide egalitarian access to open spaces for everyone. And the same is true for the mill levy’s continued stewardship of our parks and trails, all of which we use collectively as a community and all of which we pay for collectively.”

“Could anything be more democratic than open space?” asked Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “These places are open to anybody. It doesn’t matter how much money you made last year. It doesn’t matter who your parents are. These places are open to anybody.”

Past open space bond funds protected Missoula's North Hills from development. (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)
Past open space bond funds protected Missoula's North Hills from development. (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)

But they are increasingly rare and at risk of development as more and more people choose Missoula as their home.

“The simple fact of the matter is, nobody is making any more of this stuff,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “Nobody is making any more nature, more open space, more wild rivers, more of these cherished little creeks and streams. It’s up to us, up to us to preserve, to protect and to steward these irreplaceable resources for future generations.”
Ramos attempted to have the measure sent back to committee for more debate, but was overruled by the other council members.

Ward 4 Councilman John DiBari made the case for giving Missoula County voters a chance to make their own decision about a 2018 open space bond.

“For a long time now, Missoula has embarked on a campaign to continue to make the community a better and better place to live,” DeBari said. “We just need to be open about the fact that it does cost us money. That is not a surprise.”

In recent years, he reminded the council, Missoula voters have taxed themselves to build a new library, create the Fort Missoula Regional Park, build new schools, and in 1980, 1995 and 2006 approved earlier open space bonds.

“We rely on voters making a decision based on their values,” DeBari said. “For me, supporting an open space bond and mill levy is very much voting my values.”

Developer Rick Wishcamper encouraged all those in the audience who support an open space bond on November’s ballot to stand, and all but a handful of audience members stood.

Wishcamper said he develops affordable housing all across the country and does not see the world in the way described by Councilman Ramos.

“Place matters,” said Wishcamper, emphasizing that his affordable housing developments go into cities where his tenants will find good schools, good jobs, medical care and “all of the things that every other family would want their children to have access to.”

“Our open spaces are a driver of our economic development, and they’re a driver of our quality of life and the health of our community,” he said.

Pelah Hoyt, the lands director of Five Valleys Land Trust, said lands purchased and conserved by past open space bonds are making a difference in people’s lives every day.

Funds from Missoula's 1995 open space bond put Mount Jumbo into city ownership. (Nelson Kenter photo)
Funds from Missoula's 1995 open space bond put Mount Jumbo into city ownership. (Nelson Kenter photo)

Those bonds protected Mount Jumbo, they protected Mount Sentinel, they protected the keystone parks along the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula. The 2006 bond allowed Garden City Harvest to purchase its River Road Garden, where the fertile soils are providing food for people in need.

On the back side of Mount Jumbo, residents of East Missoula now have access to the mountain because of land and trails secured by the 2006 bond. So, too, do Lolo residents enjoy the open spaces of Travelers’ Rest State Park, which the Missoula County open space bond helped to purchase.

Future bond dollars could finally give Frenchtown residents direct access to the Clark Fork River from town, Hoyt said. They could someday give residents of subdivisions west of Reserve Street access to the North Hills.

“And we could complete the Dean Stone Project,” she said, where 20 community groups are working to put more of the mountain into public ownership and to provide miles of new trails accessible to people of all abilities.

“I urge you to support this conservation proposal,” Hoyt said. “It really is an investment in people’s lives here that will benefit people for many generations to come.”

Council president Bryan von Lossberg made the motion that ultimately passed with all but Ramos’ concurrence:

“Adopt a resolution of the Missoula City Council in support of the Missoula County Commissioners holding a public hearing and pending the hearing, placing the question of a county-wide open space general obligation bond before the voters in the 2018 general election; and further the Council requests the Mayor and his staff work with counsel and others regarding the necessary steps to place the question of a mill levy for the purpose of conservation and responsible stewardship of open space and conservation lands, before the voters in the 2018 general election.”

Von Lossberg said he is very supportive of the bond, but also supportive of putting the question to voters so they can make the decision.

The question now goes to the Missoula County commissioners who will first hold a public hearing, then must decide by August whether to place the bond issue on the general election ballot.