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Flat Iron Ranch sparks bitter Hamilton debate

A proposal to annex more than 490 acres of Ravalli County land—and the 620-unit residential development slated to come with it—into Hamilton city limits is stirring a bitter debate among local residents, builders and city planners. Dubbed Flat Iron Ranch by the subdivision’s Scottsdale, Ariz.-based developers, the plan has ignited concerns about managing development in the Bitterroot, even though it’s still weeks and potentially months before it will appear before the City Planning Board for preliminary approval.

“Are we going to become a bedroom community for Missoula with subdivisions occupying our prime agricultural land?” asks Stewart Brandborg, president of Bitterrooters for Planning, stressing his group’s concern over the subdivision’s impact to the environment and existing city infrastructure. “Do we really want 600 homes right here? And are we getting impact fees to cover the costs to police, schools, roads and septic systems?”

The positive public promotion of Flat Iron Ranch—mostly in paid advertisements in the Ravalli Republic and glossy direct mail pieces—also worries Brandborg. He says Shiloh Development, the company behind Flat Iron Ranch, is leaving the public in the dark about the logistical hurdles of such a huge project.

“It’s been a big push lately with a lot of slick literature going out in the papers and other advertisements,” he says. “Our position: We want a full evaluation of the project, including full public involvement and all the information on its impact to prime agricultural lands. We also want full disclosure of what the city’s responsibilities will be to support it.”

Brandborg says the planning board cancelled three different public meetings on the annexation, and is worried that Hamilton City Council will approve a developer-financed feasibility study into the environmental impacts of the project.

But not everyone sees Flat Iron Ranch as bad for the area. In 2006, Ravalli County voters passed a contentious zoning measure that restricted density in new subdivisions to one dwelling for every two acres. Although the measure expires in November, some say it’s already done damage to local workers.

“These are precarious economic times we’re in,” says City Councilman Mike La Salle, who works for a local concrete contractor. “The construction business down here has taken a couple different blows. It’s been hit by the economy, rising energy prices and construction costs. But the two-for-one zoning measure passed down here out-priced many working families from owning a home.”

Flat Iron’s next step is on hold. A key pre-planning document now in the hands of city planners has stalled the project’s appearance before the planning board. In February, members of the City Council criticized City Planner Dennis Stranger when he sought approval for contracts to pay for a developer-funded feasibility study that overlooked key areas of impact. Council returned the contracts to committee after complaining that Stranger was letting developers off the hook by specifically keeping transportation issues out of the scope of inquiry. Stranger did not return calls for this story.

“I think a lot of people worry about whether the city can handle the traffic,” says City Councilwoman Nancy Joy Hendrickson, noting this issue grows more complicated because of overlapping road ownership between Ravalli County and the state.

Hendrickson adds that she’s unsure of the status of the feasibility study, but says she’d “kind of like to know what happened to it since we saw a presentation last winter.”

Some of the specific project-related concerns will be addressed when Public Works finalizes a plan of services.

“We’re almost done,” says Keith Smith, Public Works director. He began the plan of services in January, and says it will address needed infrastructure and engineering to connect the Flat Iron Ranch, located roughly three miles east of downtown Hamilton,  with existing city services. It includes provisions that Shiloh Development must address to make that connection.

“We’re just recommending where they connect pipes and power, and things of that nature,” he says, adding that he hopes to take it before the planning board in August or September.

Hendrickson still cautions that it could be months before all of Flat Iron’s details are ironed out. And count Shiloh Development among those moving cautiously.

“We’re still in the early phase of planning,” says Ken Madden, president of the company.

Madden says Shiloh is currently talking with the community to explain the advantages of annexation and how Flat Iron Ranch helps manage growth in Ravalli County by being so close to the urban core. Shiloh, which is also in the process of building the 170-acre Glacier Ranch community in Kalispell, touts the Flat Iron development on its website as “prime land strategically located in the midst of the Bitterroot Valley which is nestled between two of the most majestic mountain ranges in the western region of Montana.”

For residents like Brandborg, protecting that land is his largest concern. Like many long-time Bitterroot residents, he worries about the area’s rapid shift from farming to residential development.

“The pleadings of revitalizing rural America,” he says, “are vitally important here.”
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