Helen Quinn steps out from behind the broken screen door of her son’s house on the hill at the end of Showdown Lane. Her breath curls in the frosty air as she stretches a wrinkled hand to point out the ranch to her left and the row of brand-new houses to her right.
The sound of banging hammers echoes up from a construction site, matched periodically by moos from the white Charolais crosses grazing on the other side of the road. In front of the new houses, hulking yellow Caterpillars and Bobcats lay dormant in the fresh snow.
“I’m sorry they had to subdivide this,” Quinn says with a sigh. “It was really pretty to see the horses on one side and the cows on the other. But it’s progress, I guess, with a question mark.”
The aptly named Showdown Lane separates ranchland from subdivisions in Missoula’s Miller Creek area, and as such it defines a conflict the city has yet to reconcile as it expands.
Once the rolling hills of the Miller Creek area were pasture and farmland, most part of the 3,200-acre Maloney Ranch. Now Miller Creek is the epicenter of a heated debate between longtime ranchers and developers. As ranching grows more difficult and less profitable, the land is being bought, subdivided and developed.
Marjorie Boggess owns the cattle and the ranch below the Quinns’ house. The land belonged to her parents, who grew grain and raised milk cows. As a child, Boggess attended Cold Spring School, when it was no more than a two-room brick schoolhouse. To visit an aunt who lived in Pattee Canyon, Boggess and her sister galloped through the fields on horseback, crossing only three fences to get there.
“Kinda was a farmer’s life back then,” Boggess recalls.
Boggess watched as cattle on the surrounding hills were gradually replaced with houses, but she’s not ready to give up the past quite yet.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have anything to do outside,” she says. “I’ll do it as long as I can, that’s the main thing.”
With the help of her sister, brother-in-law and son, Boggess looks after more than 30 head of cattle, grows the hay that feeds them, and takes care of two horses, several cats and a cattle dog named Hope.
Pouring herself a steaming cup of coffee from a thermos, Boggess looks out the window at her 67 acres. She’s in her seventies, with neatly cut silver hair and eyes shadowed with toil.
“It really don’t pay, but it’s something to do,” she says. “It’s our way of livin’, I guess.”
When Boggess is gone, her land, if not her way of life, will pass on to her three children.
“They’ll probably split it up and sell it,” she says. “I guess when I’m gone I won’t worry about it.”
Less than a mile away, across Showdown Lane, a construction worker named Dean puts siding on one of 123 freshly built houses nestled tightly on what used to be part of the Maloney Ranch. A backhoe sits in the yard behind him, framing Lolo Peak with its metallic arm.
“I know if I lived here I’d be putting up a stink,” he says. “Fortunately I just work here and leave.”
Dean says the price tags on these houses will hover around $300,000. Just over the hill, near the old Maloney Ranch homestead, large new homes are going for upward of half a million dollars.
East of the holding pens on the Boggess ranch, the new houses rise up the hill in patchwork formation.
“I didn’t like how they jammed them in there,” Boggess says. “I guess when you don’t own the property, you ain’t got nothin’ to say.”
The Maloney family owned that land for as long as Boggess can remember. When Dan Maloney, the last ranch owner, died, he passed the land on to his friend Pat McCarthy. McCarthy ran cattle on the ranch until it became too costly. In the mid-’90s, he sold the property to Roy Prock, a developer from Indiana, and the building began.
Artie Dorris is the real estate manager for Maloney Properties LLC, the company overseeing the land for the Prock family. In a telephone interview he is tense and tight-lipped.
Asked how much development neighbors can expect?
“Whatever the market will bear,” Dorris answers.
In Boggess’ house, the name Artie Dorris fetches a bristled response.
“We kind of had our rounds with him,” Boggess says.
In the initial phases of construction on the other side of Showdown Lane, Boggess says, Dorris sent men in to tear out the fence on Boggess’ property line to make room for the machinery.
“Pretty soon we had loaders and buckets and dump trucks turnin’ around,” she says. “The contractors acted like they owned it. They piled up clay, and dropped lumber where they wanted. We had signs there, private property, we were tryin’ to be nice, but they didn’t pay any attention.”
Boggess says she and her sister picked up garbage blowing off the construction sites all spring.
“They had no respect for anyone else’s property,” she says.
Later on, Boggess says, Dorris’ workers pulled off her sister’s gate with the intention of widening a road into the Boggess ranch. The sisters called up WGM, the engineering group surveying most of the area.
When the engineers came out, Boggess gave them a stern reprimand.
“I said ‘widen it on your side. If you want to go on my side, buy the right of way.’”
“If you kept your mouth shut, they’d walk right over you,” she says.
Still, Boggess seems resigned to the houses going up all around her. Her chief concern, however, is the plan to build a bridge across the Bitterroot River from the Miller Creek area to Highway 93.
As it is, the only way out of the area is through the Y-junction where Lower Miller Creek Road meets Upper Miller Creek Road, a bottleneck that looks only to worsen as more homes are built. The bridge is a solution that has been championed by developers since construction began, and one that would send a road straight through the Boggess ranch to cross the river and intersect Highway 93 at the Blue Mountain Road stoplight.
Boggess, who runs three wheel-line irrigation systems in her hayfields, doesn’t want her property broken up.
“It didn’t make sense to me,” she says. “The only thing it benefits is the subdividers, the way I look at it. If they didn’t subdivide it, we wouldn’t need it.”
Several years ago, Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans went to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress for a Federal Highways Grant to investigate the feasibility of a bridge. She got $5 million. Federal engineers conducted a study that emphasized potential conflicts, and recommended widening the two Miller Creek roads instead.
“At this point, I’m not happy with their recommendation,” says Evans, who moved to the Miller Creek area a year ago and now lives about a mile from Boggess’ ranch. “The bridge is necessary,” she insists.
The proposed bridge would cost anywhere from $17 to $22 million, and Evans says she still hopes to attract federal money to build it.
“I’ve been one of the ones pushing it,” Evans says. “We need more traffic capability.”
Some developers have donated money to a fund for the bridge, and the county is collecting an $1,800 mitigation fee for every new house built in the area to go toward a traffic solution.
Boggess fears that if she puts up a fuss about the bridge, the county might play its trump card and take her land by employing the rule of eminent domain.
Commissioner Evans says she’s growing weary of criticisms of the Miller Creek subdivisions.
“I think it’s a very well planned development,” she says. “I liked it well enough to move here. I don’t have any negative things to say.”
Evans says the developers have been good neighbors and have been more than accommodating to the area’s longtime landowners.
Moreover, Evans says, eminent domain would be used only as a last resort.
“I don’t care to take people’s land when they don’t care to sell it,” she says.
Evans says Missoula has no alternative but to grow.
“I don’t like the word ‘sprawl’,” she says. “That has a negative connotation. I call it property rights.”
Although she admits the Miller Creek developments won’t solve Missoula’s affordable housing problem—“I’m not going to tell you what we paid for this lot, but it was plenty,” she says—Evans envisions a healthy future for the area.
“It’s going to be a beautiful subdivision with lawns and trees, and people with the five-acre lots will probably have an animal.”
Back on her ranch, Boggess pulls out a 1997 Missoulian in which her story and photograph ran on the front page. She points to the picture, in which a verdant hill rises behind her as she unloads hay for her cattle. That hill is now covered in new houses.
Boggess is not oblivious to the money she could make if she sold her land.
“We’ve been approached different times by Realtors, but I gotta live somewhere, might as well be here,” she says. “It’s probably worth more subdivided than it is as a farm, but what happens after I’m gone is for my kids to figure out. I’ll hang on to it as long as I can.”
As for the hundreds of new houses hemming in their property more tightly each year—both Boggess and Helen Quinn display a sense of calm resignation.
“What can you do?” Quinn asks. “You can only do what they want you to. They’ll build right up to where they can.”
Even the proposed bridge that would cut her land in half leaves Boggess more philosophical than irate.
“I’m not droolin’ over it,” she says. “What will be, will be, but I hope they don’t build it.”
Boggess slowly sweeps her eyes over the surrounding land that she has known all her life. She stops to watch a huge flock of Canada geese emerge from the clouds, descend in circles, and land honking in her field.
“I just don’t like to see it broke up,” she says. “That’s the one thing they can’t make any more of, is land. When it’s all concrete and oil and houses, it’s gone. You can’t get it back.”