Missoulians are at risk of losing one of the area’s most beloved parks, at least according to one worried county surveyor. The city, however, believes the situation with Greenough Park isn’t quite so drastic. Who’s right depends on how one interprets—or enforces—a decades-old legal clause.
The Greenough family originally deeded the park, a narrow riparian area along the lower Rattlesnake Creek, to the city in 1902, requiring it be maintained as a “natural park.” Yet by 1954, construction of a dance hall, an artificial fishing pond and a parking lot infringed on the park’s boundaries.
Alleging that Missoula was “converting [Greenough Park] to a public playground rather than a natural park,” the family was so miffed by the violations that they sued to regain ownership. A year later, the city settled, agreeing to a 13-point “stipulation” that mandated an advisory committee, the closure of existing roads and—rather presciently—a new boundary survey.
More than five decades later, no surveys have been completed, says Steve Niday, a Missoula County surveyor tapped by Parks and Rec in 1999 to “retrace” Greenough’s boundaries. He’s finished $20,000 worth of groundwork, and all parties—except the city—have signed off on it.
That, says Niday, is because many legal gray areas remain, a result of outdated or lost survey markers and evolving streams and embankments—all items requiring a legal opinion.
“Since the city hasn’t signed the survey, I believe the family could say, ‘We want the park back,’” says Niday.
City Attorney Jim Nugent disagrees.
“I don’t think we’re in any danger of losing ownership of a park we’ve been using for 50 years,” he says. Besides, Nugent adds, the money needs to come from a strained Parks and Rec budget.
Donna Gaukler, head of Parks and Rec, says she’s aware of the ongoing survey debacle, but estimates the costs to complete the project would exceed her entire budget. She says it’s not at the top of her priorities.
Still, the half-century-old lawsuit claims that the city is in violation of the original deed and therefore the iconic park should “revert to the plaintiffs.” The uncompleted survey leaves Niday antsy.
“I understand that the city attorney’s office doesn’t need to go looking for work,” he says. “But the issue of finishing the survey might take on more urgency when the city is sued.”