Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the rest of Missoula fills in with housing and other development, residents of the Rattlesnake could see a large swath of developable land set aside as open space and protected in perpetuity.

While the donation of 21 acres of flat ground is a kind gesture and the property owner's right to consider, early questions asked Wednesday hinged on whether the city should accept the offer given Missoula's need for housing, or preserve the parcel in its growing network of open space and conservation holdings.

Members of the council unanimously agreed to set a public hearing to discuss the question in March.

Andy Sponseller and Connie Poten are looking to gift the valuable parcel to the city as the Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery Conservation Easement. The city's cost is set at roughly $40,000, enough to cover due diligence, and consulting and legal fees.

The funding would come from the 2018 Open Space Bond and if approved, it would conserve what city park officials described as a valuable asset in terms of habitat and open space.

After years of grazing, Zac Covington said the area is again home to native grasses and other plant species. It's also rated seven out of 10 for bird species and four out of 10 for mammals, including large carnivores like bears, lions, bobcats and fox.

“Wolves have actually been present on those three properties,” said Covington, who serves as the city's open space program manager. “There's a lot of ground nesting birds and birds that nest in the grape vines, and seasonal birds, everything from sandhill cranes to great horned owls. It's pretty amazing, in my opinion.”

Open space versus housing

Covington touched on the property's history, saying it was used by Native Americans before European arrival. A landowner described as “a German baron named Ratliff” owned the property in the early 20th Century.

Montana Power also owned the property until 1991. It was then bought by owners who intended to preserve it as open space. While the current owners could sell it for a hefty sum to help meet the city's housing needs in an area that's already developed, they instead look to place it into the public trust, as is.

“In this day and age, with the current financial situation, it's somewhat heroic for the landowners wanting to give back to their community,” said Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler. “They genuinely want to leave a legacy to their community. Their intention always was to preserve it and protect it.”

Mount Jumbo and the Rattlesnake as seen from Mount Sentinel. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Mount Jumbo and the Rattlesnake neighborhood as seen from Mount Sentinel. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

City voters have passed a number of Open Space bonds in recent years, and the funding has gone to achieve a number of conservation tasks, primarily in the foothills rimming the valley.

City Council member Gwen Jones said such acquisitions make sense given their character and steep terrain. But flat land on the valley floor is both limited and precious, and council will have to consider whether Missoula's housing needs clash with its desire for conservation.

“I'm curious if staff has any thoughts on open space acquisition and the values of wildlife corridors and public easements versus a buildable, flat area that has sewer and water in adjacent neighborhoods,” Jones said. “How do we square it with our housing policy and growth policy? It's really a competing values-type scenario, and maybe that's up to council to decide.”

Gaukler said that while visiting with the property owners, it was stated how valuable the land could be if sold for development. While understanding that, Gaukler said the owners opted instead to conserve it as open space.

“Recognizing that the city's highest priority is to address housing, we had a pretty in-depth conversation,” Gaukler said. “At the end of the day, it occurred to me that individual property owners still have individual property rights to choose to do with their property as they wish.”

While the city has been successful in preserving land around the valley floor and opening new parks, Gaukler said it hasn't done so good on protecting agricultural land. The land owned by the winery includes prime agricultural soil and existing irrigation.

“We're looking at growing inward and becoming a denser community. This would be on the outer edges and provide some respite as open space,” Gaukler said. “But it's not past me that there's a good amount of open space in this area already.”

Members of the City Council have yet to weigh in on the proposal but instead set a public hearing for March 13. They're also expected to decide this year on whether to purchase several hundred acres on Marshall Mountain as open space and recreation using funding from the Open Space Bond.