How a planned riverside park at Fort Missoula will shape up remains unclear after an Aug. 30 mediation intended to resolve disputes between the construction company Knife River and city, county and state representatives failed to yield a compromise.
"We'll have to litigate it," says Missoula Deputy County Attorney James McCubbin.
The litigation includes Knife River, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Missoula County, follows a discussion that dates back to 2002, when JTL Group Inc., now owned by Knife River, agreed to give its Fort Missoula property to Missoula's parks system in 2012. Based on that agreement, the city incorporated Knife River's property as a cornerstone of the Fort Missoula Master Plan, which calls for the creation of a 246-acre multi-use park. Boat docks, a playground and riverfront trails are slated for the site. "It would just be amazing," says Missoula Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler
But according to the DEQ, which regulates gravel mining, Knife River has significantly outgrown the 33 acres it's permitted to mine. The operation now covers 86.5 acres, meaning there is less land and larger ponds—the remnants of mining—than the city anticipated.
Prompted by an inquiry from the city, DEQ asked Knife River in 2009 to amend its mining permit to account for the larger operation. In order to do so, Knife River must first get Missoula County to sign off on a zoning permit. The county says it can't, because current regulations forbid gravel mining in residential neighborhoods.
Knife River filed suit against DEQ last year, arguing that a reclamation plan in place since the mid-'70s serves as a valid permit. In a complaint amended this summer that now includes the county as a defendant, Knife River argues that because the operation has been in place since before the county enacted restrictions on open-cut mining in residential neighborhoods, the operations should be grandfathered in.
In response, DEQ is now asking a judge to force the company to stop excavating on the land. McCubbin says the county is poised to follow suit.
President of Knife River's Montana and Wyoming operations Dave Zinke says previous operators expanded beyond the original 33 acres years ago, and he doesn't understand why the DEQ and the county are pressing the issue just before the company is readying to clear out. "We're trying to do something good with the property," he says. "And the whole thing has just blown up in our faces."