The open grassy fields that abound in the quiet neighborhood near the Clark Fork River along Mullan Road leave plenty of room for debate about their future. And that debate recently popped into high gear when ranch owner Jim Edwards asked the county to rezone 160 acres of his property to allow for fewer houses per acre and—here’s the rub, neighbors say—gravel mining. Edwards says the pits he’s proposing are a means to an end, and that gravel mining will eventually allow him to create ponds that will enhance his ranch. Many of his neighbors, who’ve organized as Grass Valley Against Gravel (GAG), cite a host of negative impacts they say will result from mining gravel in their residential neighborhood.
Edwards and his neighbors present utterly different descriptions of the proposal and what’s at stake, and each discounts what the other has to say.
To Edwards, the rezoning makes nothing but sense. His 470-acre Trout Meadows Ranch sits on the Clark Fork River about seven miles west of Missoula on Mallard Way, off of Mullan Road. He’s asking the county to rezone 160 acres of his ranch from a residential zone that allows for one house per five acres to an “open and resource lands” zone that decreases density to one house per 40 acres and also allows for gravel mines permitted by the state. He’s already applied to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality for an open-cut mining permit, presenting a plan to mine about 32 acres and install a rock crusher and asphalt plant onsite, but that permit is on hold pending rezoning. Besides the required rezoning approval from the county commissioners, to mine gravel Edwards would also need to obtain permission from the county Board of Adjustment, says Zack Brandt, associate planner with the Office of Planning and Grants.
Edwards, who lost a bid for a seat on the Board of County Commissioners Nov. 7, says his proposal is a win-win; reduced density means fewer homes can be built near the river, and the possibility of gravel mining will allow him to fulfill a longtime dream of creating ponds that can be used by the YMCA children’s camp he hosts on his property every year. He says the gravel trucks would be routed to drive past his house, where they’ll have minimum impact on his neighbors, and that he plans to keep living on his ranch, which should assure neighbors the project won’t make the neighborhood unlivable.
“I feel like I’ve been trashed over trying to do something good,” says Edwards, who adds that while some call this a gravel-pit project, he prefers to call it an open-space project.
His neighbors say the benefits cited by Edwards are “ploys.”
“He’s not saving open space. He’s paving his way to a gravel pit,” says Julia Sauter, one of GAG’s roughly 50 members. Sauter says GAG has gathered more than 1,000 signatures opposed to Edwards’ rezoning request, and GAG maintains that the neighborhood’s road safety, air quality, wildlife habitat, property values and rural character will all be debilitated if Edwards gets his way. They say housing density is a distraction since much of Edwards’ property sits within the floodplain.
Plus, they recently discovered through online research that Edwards has put his ranch up for sale, which they say seriously calls into question Edwards’ supposed commitment to creating a project he can literally live with. Fay Ranches, Inc. lists a 367-acre chunk of Edwards’ ranch, including the 160 acres proposed for rezoning, for $5.95 million, and Edwards confirms the property has been on the market for about a year, but says he’s ambivalent about selling it. He also confirms to the Independent that Riverside Contracting, the company with whom he’s signed a 10-year lease for his proposed gravel mining operation, has first dibs on buying the property. However, Edwards says, “if Riverside wanted to buy it, they would have bought it by now.”
But GAG members worry that Edwards will hold onto the property only until he secures zoning that would make a full-scale gravel operation possible.
On Nov. 15, the Missoula County Commissioners will hold a public hearing before deciding whether to grant Edwards’ rezoning request, nearly one month after the Planning Board recommended approval.
“What’s to say that once he gets this approved, he doesn’t sell and leave us with a gravel pit for neighbors?” asks Michele Whitmire, who lives near Edwards’ ranch.
Edwards reiterates that he’s planning to continue living on his ranch—though he says at another point in the interview that “If the neighbors continue to be nasty, I will sell it and they can deal with the developers and all those homes”—and that the main goal of his wished-for rezoning is to keep the property from being overbuilt.
“When I bought this ranch, I bought it to protect the river,” Edwards says. “I think the river is sacred and I would never build on it.”
He says his neighbors have overblown and sensationalized the impacts of the project, and that he’s followed every step of a thorough process to make sure it’s done right. He says GAG has got its facts wrong; for instance, they’ve created neighborhood signs warning of a 160-acre gravel pit when he’s only trying to permit about 30 acres; GAG responds that rezoning the full 160 acres creates room for expansion.
Sitting in a living room whose window looks out onto the site of Edwards’ proposed mine, Sauter and other GAG members who’ve long lived in the neighborhood bemoan the possibility of noisy gravel trucks on their little road, asphalt plant odors and dust.
Edwards, meanwhile, bewails how contentious the project has become.
Both Edwards and GAG predict the county commissioners will side with their respective standpoints if they’ve got any common sense or concern for the neighborhood’s best interests—a sure sign that debate about development on Mullan Road remains wide open, even if the grassy fields at issue ultimately don’t.