While members of the Missoula City Council have more questions than answers, they agreed on Wednesday to approve a $130,000 contract to begin master planning Marshall Mountain – a move advocates contend is essential for fundraising.
But the 11-1 vote to fund the planning effort wasn’t a signal of support to acquire the mountain as open space, they said. That decision would come later and will be based on the findings of the plan, long-term operational and maintenance costs, and the success of the fundraising effort, among other things.
“This is not voting for any purchase, it’s only a vote to approve the master plan,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “We don’t know what the funding looks like. We don’t know if the fundraising is going to be enough or what the county is going to put in. This is a process.”
Contract approval will permit the SE Group to begin planning for the potential public ownership of Marshall Mountain. It will explore programming, staffing needs, operational costs, maintenance needs and revenue potential, among other items.
Those who support city acquisition said the plan is essential to successful fundraising. That fundraising effort is expected to kick off in earnest this month. The city’s temporary lease for use of the mountain’s lower half expires next June.
But the process has some council members leery, even if the clock is ticking.
“This seems like a large scoping project for something we don’t own yet and haven’t made a decision to own,” said council member Stacie Anderson, who supported the master plan.
Anderson and several others expressed concern that funding for the master plan will come from revenue set aside as part of the conservation levy passed by voters two years ago in conjunction with the Open Space Bond.
Funding from the levy is intended to fund the cost of maintaining the city’s network of open space lands. Some don’t believe that funding should be used to pay for a master plan, even though city staff said the revenue would be repaid to the levy as part of the fundraising process.
“I’d like more information on how we’re using that stewardship levy currently to do maintenance in the areas we already own, and what outstanding maintenance projects we have so we’re making sure we’re balancing that,” Anderson added. “These resources are finite. I want to make sure there’s a plan to get that money back into the stewardship levy.”
Council member Mirtha Becerra also expressed concerns, particularly around the fundraising process and how potential acquisition of the mountain was being sold to donors. She suggested the process thus far has been heavy on mountain biking, even though a public vision for the mountain hasn’t been solidified.
She also questioned the city’s ability to maintain more open space.
“It’s important to balance our desire for more and unique open space with our ability to maintain it into the future,” she said. “It’s the reason we passed the Open Space Bond with the Conservation and Sustainability Levy attached to it. It’s an ongoing issue that sometimes we bite off more than we can chew. It’s important to get all the answers before we buy more property.”
A 2018 survey suggested community support for buying Marshall Mountain. The property is listed as a cornerstone in the city’s open space plan, and it was prioritized for potential acquisition if the opportunity arose.
The mountain closed as a local ski hill in 2003. It’s surrounded by federal land and is currently split into three parcels, including the 160-acre base area owned by Izzy Dog LLC. The mid-mountain parcel also consists of 160 acres and is owned by the Five Valleys Land Trust.
The last 100-acre parcel includes the upper ski runs and is under a special-use permit held by the Forest Service.
While the majority of the City Council supported the master plan to help answer questions before any decision on buying the mountain is made, council member Sandra Vasecka opposed it. Among other things, she suggested the survey stating public support was misleading.
“This sounds like something the city wants and they’re going to make it happen,” she said. “This $130,000 for a master plan is basically agreeing to purchase Marshall Mountain, and I can’t agree to that.”