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Howard Raser's grandchildren agreed to sell the land for $1.25 million to the four New Jersey partners: Howard "Buddy" Seale, Howard Seale Jr., Jeff Howard and Regina Hague. They named their new property the "Circle H" because all of the partners had Hs in their names.
Raser remembers the summer after closing the deal when Howard Seale Sr. and his partners came to Missoula and walked the rolling property together. "They asked me what my ideas were," Raser says. "I explained to them how I thought the property should be developed."
First and foremost, Raser wanted to minimize the development's impact on the natural environment. He talked about "smart growth" before it became an industry buzzword. The partners hired Raser to be the Circle H project manager.
In slick mailers, the Circle H billed the project as "Missoula's first and only 'Ranch Preservation Residence.'" To lure wealthy out-of-state residents, the brochures painted a picture of wild yet tranquil beauty. The literature compared the scenery of the Circle H and its surroundings with images from iconic films such as A River Runs Through It, The Horse Whisperer and Lonesome Dove.
New homeowners would be awarded a maroon bag that prominently featured the development's logo and was filled with a Circle H polo shirt, a cap and a copy of the subdivision's 23 pages of covenants that govern everything from where mailboxes may be placed (clustered rather than dispersed) to how clotheslines could be hung.
Raser advocated for clustering the new homes, better to preserve native grasses and wildlife habitat. Owners granted a conservation easement to Five Valleys Land Trust to protect the North Hills elk herd, which uses the Circle H as a winter calving range. Whitetail deer, fox, coyotes, black bears, bluebirds, meadowlarks, hawks, great horned owls and ducks also roam the Circle H.
Since the whole idea was to create the feel of a ranch, Raser arranged to continue a longstanding lease agreement with neighboring rancher Paul Hanson, who for years had run his cattle on the property. Potential Circle H residents were wooed with promotional materials that said, "Expect cattle will be freely grazing on the ranch in the late spring to early summer months."
As for the horse stables, they would be scattered across a 90-acre lot. Residents would be allowed to board up to two horses. Even the animals would live the good life; their stalls were to be attached to partially covered outdoor corrals.
"It was upscale," Raser says.
Elected officials and conservationists lauded the plan. Former County Commissioner Barbara Evans proclaimed in a 1994 Missoulian article, "I've been here since Noah came over on the ark. But I have never seen a finer subdivision before us."
Raser says he devoted a significant amount of time and money to the project because he'd witnessed too many poorly planned developments fail. In 2000, when the first Circle H residents moved in, he wanted to ensure that they, along with his friends, neighbors and family, could be proud of what Raser had helped create.
"I didn't want them—or my family—to be embarrassed with what happened," he says.
Talking on the phone from his automotive service shop in Summit, N.J., 71-year-old Howard "Buddy" Seale remembers how he fell in love with Montana. It happened while he and friends came west to hunt mule deer, antelope and pheasant.
"We began to absorb the fabric of Missoula and it was a very pleasant thing," Seale says.
In addition to the natural beauty, Seale was particularly drawn to western Montana's laidback culture. With the Circle H, he aimed to embody "the whole idea of the romantic west...Everybody wanted to be a part of something that was very beautiful."
The idyllic vision started falling apart, Seale says, when too many of his former associates tried to eke out hidden financial gain.
"We get kicked in the teeth one time after another," Seale says. "On a personal level, it's been disappointing dealing with people out there."
Seale admits it was hard for him to keep an eye on things from New Jersey. What was he supposed to do, he wonders now, abandon the automotive business that had financially sustained him for so many years?
It was especially painful, Seale says, to learn that Jay Raser stole from Circle H. In 2007, Missoula County prosecuted Raser for stealing thousands of dollars from the project.
According to Missoula County District Court records, Raser admitted to taking gravel from the property's pit and selling it to local contractors on three different occasions. Those transactions were valued at $18,766.
Prosecutors also alleged that Raser kept a $28,000 rebate check from Northwestern Energy that was meant to go into company coffers.
Once Northwestern Energy found out that Raser cashed the check, it threatened legal action against Raser, court documents say. Raser repaid the money.
In September 2008, Raser entered what's called an "Alford plea" to felony theft charges. Such a plea isn't an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement that the state has enough evidence to secure a prosecution.
Raser received a two-year deferred sentence. The judge also ordered he stay away from the Circle H.
Sitting at Bernice's Bakery in Missoula on an early January morning, Jay Raser can't hide his anger. Although he's years removed from his official work as project manager, he's still upset about what happened to his grandfather's land.