Amid concerns, Missoula County agrees to place $15M open space bond on ballot

A new $15 million open space bond could provide a trail connection from Seeley Lake to the waterfront, and complete the Mount Dean Stone project in Missoula, advocates said at Monday’s public hearing. (Missoula Current file photo)

Conservation advocates on Monday urged Missoula County commissioners to place a $15 million open space bond on the November ballot, saying it is needed to cope with projected growth while maintaining the region’s economic vitality.

While commissioners agreed to place the measure before voters, they warned that increases in property taxes were reaching a breaking point, and that the bond’s timing may be misplaced given deep cuts to state social programs and other community needs.

“I believe Missoula County must change how we judge whether to put things on the ballot,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “We have to address critical issues, life-and-death issues, quality-of-life issues – daily things like food, shelter and mental health. The state is not taking leadership on these issues.”

Monday’s 150-minute public hearing saw a long list of Missoula nonprofits pledge their support for the bond, from Back Country Hunters and Anglers to Run Wild Missoula and the local chapter of the Audubon Society.

Throughout the hearing, advocates noted the success of past open space measures, including the $10 million bond passed by voters in 2006. Because of that bond, they said, Missoula County secured thousands of acres of open space for current and future generations.

“This money was leveraged almost four to one by federal, state and private sources, resulting in a huge amount of additional money for our county,” said Amber Sherrill with Five Valleys Land Trust. “As the population of western Montana continues to grow, planning for the future is critical for our ability to maintain our county’s agricultural community, and to keep our cities and towns livable.”

Advocates credited the 2006 bond with protecting 15,000 acres of wildlife habitat, 9,000 acres of agricultural land, 40 miles of waterways and the construction of 19 miles of new trail.

A new bond, Sherrill said, could be used to provide Frenchtown residents all-abilities access to the Clark Fork River. In Seeley Lake, it could provide a trail connection from town to the waterfront. In Missoula, it would help complete the Mount Dean Stone project, securing one of the largest tracts of open space in the valley.

“Outdoor recreation and scenic open spaces have become an economic driver,” said Sherrill. “This makes it particularly important right now that we plan for the future to maintain, protect and manage this piece of our growing economy.”

With Monday’s approval, voters will decide whether to support the $15 million measure, which would cost property owners $18 a year on a $265,000 home. The city will also consider levying a separate perpetual mill to generate $500,000 a year for stewardship. That would cost the same home an additional $14 a year.

But the incremental increase in taxes has many concerned, including Susan Kohler, executive director of Missoula Aging Services, who cited a recent University of Montana survey in which housing and tax increases ranked as the top two concerns in Missoula County.

It is hypocritical for the community to suggest that affordable housing, ending homelessness and providing health care for all are priorities while asking taxpayers to fund something “unrelated,” she added.

“Our property taxes have become a burden for these individuals who are trying to find affordable housing,” Kohler said. “I’ve seen firsthand the struggle of older adults trying to stay in their own homes with taxes rising, the cost of social services, the cost of renting, and the impact of social isolation on a person’s health and well-being.”

Opponents of the measure have suggested that preserving developable land as open space drives up housing costs. But supporters, including Andrea Davis of Homeword, disagreed, saying it isn’t an either-or debate.

“We are in a place that’s going to continue growing in popularity, and folks are very interested in moving to all of Montana, let alone western Montana,” said Davis. “We have to lean into this thoughtfully in how we’re going to maintain what we all find to be one of the best parts of living here, which is access to open space and trails and a home we can afford.”

Monday’s hearing was heavily weighted with supporters, though a handful of opponents expressed concerns, from rising taxes to creating a playground for the valley’s urban residents.

Rocky Sehnert said some property owners who have benefited from the preservation of agriculture through publicly funded conservation easements don’t pay taxes assessed on general open space bonds.

“Certain properties, if they’re declared ag land, don’t pay for the recent $42 million bond (Fort Missoula) or the old open space bond,” he said. “They pay all the other county assessments, but they’re not assessed on bonds brought forward under an open space designation, and that disturbs me.”

County staff confirmed Sehnert’s concerns.

“Bond counsel researched that particular bond, and it’s accurate, that these (ag properties) aren’t taxed on an open space bond,” said Pat O’Herron, the county’s chief planning officer.

While commissioners supported placing the measure before voters, they expressed frustration with the process. How the county considers placing bonds on the ballot must be reinvented, they said, and local governments must find new ways to generate revenue beyond raising taxes on property owners.

Over the last four years, voters have passed a $152 million school bond, a $30 million Missoula County Library bond and a $42 million Fort Missoula Regional Park bond.

Commissioners last year also levied three mills to pay for improvements to the Missoula County Fairgrounds, and tax increases are expected this year, commissioners said, as local governments grapple with cuts at the state level to maintain public services.

A new open space bond would add to those obligations, they added.

“We need to diversify our income,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “It’s completely unsustainable to only have a one-legged stool of property taxes to sustain all the things that our community and our county needs. It’s getting to the breaking point, where something is going to have to give.”

The measure will go before Missoula County voters on Nov. 6 during this year’s general election.