Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A fragile deal struck between Missoula County and a local developer was officially accepted last week by commissioners, diverting the protracted case from the courts and more litigation.

Among other things, the settlement agreement grants the developer, Tia Tam LLC, preliminary approval of the McCauley Meadows subdivision but reduces the number of lots that can be placed on McCauley Butte – a prominent landmark on the valley floor.

The agreement also saw Tia Tam waive any claims and damages against the county. And while the agreement isn't perfect, officials said it was likely the best scenario available to the county and its taxpayers.

“I think this is as good as it gets,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “The risk we run by not accepting this settlement agreement would find ourselves with something that's much less desirable to the community than what's here before us.”

The county denied the McCauley Meadows subdivision in 2021, saying the 14-lot proposal in the Target Range neighborhood didn't mitigate for the loss of agricultural soils or the loss of wildlife habitat.

The project was heavily opposed by areas residents and the Montana Audubon Society, which said the development would infringe upon a 278-acre conservation easement on McCauley Butte and fragment the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area.

As a result of the county's denial of the project, Tia Tam sued the county in Missoula District Court, arguing that the decision was arbitrary and capricious. The county filed a motion to dismiss in the case, which was granted by the lower court.

However, Tia Tam appealed the decisions to the Montana Supreme Court, which overturned the lower court's ruling. At that point, both sides sat down in hopes of reaching an agreement outside the court, which resulted in last week's acceptance and approval by the county.

“Before I dove headfirst into this, I spent a little time out there,” said deputy county attorney John Hart, who helped orchestrate the deal on the county's behalf. “There is really a hush to the land right there, especially during the gathering darkness of a mid-December evening. I understand the volume of that hush is going to go up a notch or two as a result of this project.”

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 agreement includes a new design for the 14-lot subdivision. Rather than placing four lots on McCauley Butte, the project will add just one. Anything built on the lot will be subject to certain architectural limitations.

“Our client is interested in making sure the two dwellings that would be in that area are architecturally appropriate for that context,” said Allan McCormick, an attorney representing the developers. “I'd recommend we all execute this settlement agreement and put the litigation to bed. I feel like we made the right compromise.”

The lots removed from the butte will instead be placed on the valley floor. While some residents are still concerned about the project's impact on habitat and the increase in neighborhood traffic, most were willing to accept the agreement.

“This is a compromise I can accept,” said resident Webb Harrington. “The alternative of not settling this and having it go forward and be more disastrous up there (on the butte) is appalling to think about.”