Sprawling out 

Why the Bitterroot Resort's collapse could be lose-lose

When the Bitterroot Resort's creditor filed foreclosure papers in Montana District Court in early October, critics of the plan began to celebrate developer Tom Maclay's imminent failure. The man who brazenly cut ski runs on the flank of Lolo Peak and crowed about building the largest resort in North America using public land was on the verge of a fantastic face plant.

"We're not heartbroken that this has happened," says Steve Seninger of Friends of Lolo Peak. "We are concerned primarily about the public lands around Lolo Peak and Carlton Ridge. So really the financial problems he's going through, they certainly spell good news as far as cutting short any development on those public lands as he was envisioning."

click to enlarge Tom Maclay’s creditor is trying to foreclose on his 3,000-acre ranch, perhaps killing the planned Bitterroot Resort and opening the possibility of hodgepodge development on one of the last intact ranches in the area. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • Tom Maclay’s creditor is trying to foreclose on his 3,000-acre ranch, perhaps killing the planned Bitterroot Resort and opening the possibility of hodgepodge development on one of the last intact ranches in the area.

But public land aside, Maclay's financial troubles mean one of the last large swaths of intact ranchland between Lolo and Florence, including prime elk winter range, could be lost, giving way to 3,000 acres of sprawled ranchettes and McMansions instead of dense development surrounded by open space, as Maclay proposed. It's a potential lose-lose scenario smart growth advocates say should be jeered, not cheered.

"All you need to do is get a copy of the plat map for the slopes and foothills west of the highway, almost all the way down the valley," says economist Larry Swanson of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "Look at it and you'll see everything but the Maclay ranch and only a few others have already largely been sliced and diced into small parcels, ready for sale whenever they choose and with little or no planning. Virtually everything else is off the table for planning because of a lack of a comprehensive plan and zoning. So it's pretty wide open and it will largely develop in a random and haphazard way—much of it fairly low-quality development."

Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (MLIC) Asset Holdings LLC filed a complaint Oct. 2 for foreclosure against Maclay and his business entities after defaulting on payment obligations. MLIC demanded control of Maclay's land below Lolo Peak, claiming it is owed nearly $19 million, the total of two loans given in 2000 and 2005, plus interest. Maclay was given 20 days to respond to the complaint. As of press time he had not, according to the Missoula County Clerk of Court's office. Maclay did not return repeated calls for comment.

Maclay's struggles became evident in April when reports surfaced of unpaid services and liens placed on his land. He told the Independent he was forced to demote Chief Operations Officer Jim Gill to consultant, and had begun to sell off parcels of land to pay his mounting debt.

It appeared Maclay's questionable business practices were at least partly culpable for his financial troubles. A 2007 Child Support Enforcement Division order showed that he used the MLIC loans to build a $2.225 million home and spent $18,000 annually on dozens of trips around the world. He paid then-COO Gill $11,000 monthly and Maclay's fiancée, for whom Maclay created a job, $3,000 per month.

Now, with this month's foreclosure filing and the prospect of Maclay's land changing hands, the question of how it will be developed looms large.

"If—if—the development of that land goes more typical of what the area has seen, well, that's—use whatever word you want to call it—sprawl," says Dick King of Missoula Area Economic Development Corp. "You're not taking advantage of density to do really high-quality development, you're taking advantage of the availability of a lot of land. And then when development is dispersed, versus concentrated, we all know that the cost of that is higher in many different perspectives."

But Roger Millar, director of the Missoula City-County Office of Planning and Grants, says if the land is transferred to new owners who follow through with the resort, the market will dictate what's built, and right now there's no market for sprawling ranchettes.

"Everything we're seeing in the market and the reality of what's going on in Montana and the world is that the market's changed," he says. "With the economy, nobody's doing anything. But when you ask resort developers what they're going to do when the economy comes back, they're talking about smaller, in-town—creating a community that's walkable. They're not talking about what we saw in the '80s and '90s and even the earlier parts of this decade. Now, we could all be wrong.

"The concern I have as a planner in Missoula County," Millar adds, "is that the land is not zoned. And so it really will be more market-driven and resource-driven than anything else."

Pat O'Herren of Missoula County Rural Initiatives says the county has kept an eye on the Bitterroot Resort's foreclosure process. Should it progress further, he says, the county may recommend that the area south of Lolo be considered for a land-use planning process, similar to the Lolo Regional Plan Update in the works right now.

As it stands, the land's unsettled fate will most likely be decided, as with so many other debates over growth and development in western Montana, by zoning regulations—or the glaring lack thereof.

"The Bitterroot Valley can plan for its future development and protect property values and protect wildlife and environmental values and provide for developments that both protect and enhance aesthetic qualities of the valley," says Swanson, "or they can let it happen as it will, which is a prescription for driving out of the valley future high-quality development. It's a choice."

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