Former Ravalli County Commissioner Jim Rokosh stands just off the concrete outside the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge visitor's center, fuming. Several cars roll slowly down the nearby road as passengers and drivers watch ducks and geese paddle across a pond. The refuge and its inhabitants draw roughly 150,000 visitors a year, Rokosh says, and bring millions in tourism dollars to the Bitterroot. Even on a cruddy Friday afternoon, with snow flurries limiting visibility, the refuge is pulling people in.
Rokosh is fuming because just a few miles north, near the Lone Rock community between Stevensville and Florence, a landowner from Victor and a development firm from Missoula have revived a controversial subdivision that could irrevocably alter the scene here. Donald Morton and Territorial Landworks LLC are seeking to build more than 600 residential units on a 368-acre agricultural lot along the Eastside Highway, a mere 406 feet from the refuge in places.
"I characterize it as a town falling out of the sky, 'cause that's exactly what this is," Rokosh says. "What they want to do now is to suspend the town for some 40 years over the heads of the Lone Rock community and wait for it to fall when the housing market pendulum swings again."
Morton's proposal calls for 15 phases of development over 30 years, with construction beginning in 2019. In the end, the Legacy Ranch would be larger than the town of Corvallis.
The short- and long-term concerns over Legacy Ranch dominated more than seven hours of public comment before the Ravalli County planning board March 13. Hundreds of locals showed up at the Lone Rock School gymnasium for that meeting—the second on the Legacy Ranch this year—to unanimously sound off against the subdivision. Pressure from the public prompted the board to open a third meeting up to public comment two weeks later.
This isn't the first time individuals like Rokosh and groups like Bitterrooters for Planning have mounted opposition to Legacy Ranch. Morton first proposed the development in 2005. He immediately met widespread criticism from environmentalists, government employees and nearby residents. The proposal and others like it throughout the Bitterroot at the time spurred the creation of both an interim zoning regulation and a countywide growth policy. An anti-zoning faction led by 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Dan Cox defeated the latter in 2008.
Morton's Legacy Ranch application stalled when the economy tanked, before it could get county approval. Now it's back in the form of an application so large it takes up three binders. The county says it can't even load the full document to its website, and has instead made it available to the public via CD or zip drive.
According to Ravalli County Planner Kevin Waller, the planning office has received 119 letters of comment on Morton's proposal in addition to the nearly 11 hours of testimony offered during the three planning board meetings. The board is expected to issue a recommendation April 17. The Ravalli County Commission then must make a final decision by May 31.
Waller adds that public comment has been "100 percent" against the proposal, a fact he says the planning board will consider in its "quest for a recommendation." Some critics have decried the addition of an estimated 9,271 vehicle trips per day on an already crowded and dangerous stretch of the Eastside Highwaythe only road from which Legacy Ranch would be accessible. Others fear the incredible tax strain Legacy Ranch will place on agricultural communities, nearby towns and even Missoula for emergency services and road maintenance. Officials from Lone Rock Elementary have testified that the school district is currently near capacity with almost 300 students. Legacy Ranch could double the student population.
Phone messages left with Territorial Landworks CEO Jason Rice and Morton were not returned.
"There are a number of significant legal issues here," Rokosh says, "and the commission has a very clear path and we'll make it clear ... that indeed, there are potentially significant adverse impacts that have not been mitigated or sufficiently mitigated."
Rokosh doesn't just measure those impacts in traffic figures and new textbooks. For him, the impacts are also measured in feet—specifically the 406 feet that separate Legacy Ranch from the Lee Metcalf refuge.
The subdivision would rely on septic systems and a community wastewater facility to treat wastewater. A letter from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Ecological Services Division dated July 2006 estimates Legacy Ranch's wastewater systems would release 32 million gallons of effluence into the groundwater every year. Nearby residents fear the subsequent release of pharmaceuticals and other pollutants into their wells. Rokosh applies those same concerns to the refuge's wetlands and the Bitterroot River itself.
Back in 2006, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks came forward with a host of concerns over Morton's proposal. Most were exclusive to the subdivision's immediate impact on the surrounding environment. But one complaint spoke to the ramifications Legacy Ranch could have outside the Bitterroot.
"FWP has reviewed many subdivisions this large and larger close to towns about which we have not made such extensive comments," the agency wrote in a letter dated April 11, 2006. "Legacy Ranch is different because it proposes to develop what is basically a small town in a rural area abutting a National Wildlife Refuge. It would set a precedent for future development, and FWP is vitally concerned about the total cumulative impacts of this and future developments."
Joe Elliott, the environmental consultant brought on to the project, waved off FWP's concern at the time, calling Legacy Ranch "one of the most carefully planned developments to date" and "a positive precedent."
Asked why he thinks someone would revive a subdivision that's garnered so much public backlash and has such a strong potential to impact the community and environment alike, Rokosh pulls out his wallet and removes a $20 bill. "This right here," he says, crinkling the cash between his fingertips.