Un-Placid Lake 

Residents fume over Plum Creek housing plan

A towering wood sign marks the entrance to Placid Lake State Park at a fork in the road off Highway 83. In dangling columns underneath the sign, small hanging wooden strips list more than 100 carved-out family names of cabin owners around the lake.

The two roads beyond this sign wind through forested wildlands, steep slopes, and wooded shorelines dotted with cabins and homes. To the right, North Placid Lake Road climbs into vast timberlands owned by Plum Creek. Stripped and cut logs lie in piles near the edge of the half-frozen, half-muddied road that, in mid-winter, holds a mix of snowmobile, deer, elk, and Nordic ski tracks.

Down near the lake, residents enjoy a remote country with the serenity and recreation afforded by untouched wilderness.

But a recent planning document introduced at the Seeley Lake Community Council—the body that represents Placid Lake—has some people fearing that an 820-unit “mega-development” could take over their northern shoreline.

The issue, which has been on the drawing board since December 2007, has summoned an increasing level of broodiness in the community, a mood that spilled into more than two hours of heated criticism at the community council’s packed February 4 meeting. After inserting something called a TDR, or transfer development right, into a recent draft of the area’s land use plan, the all-volunteer council has faced increasing levels of hostility.

The proposed TDR would rezone a portion of Placid Lake, giving Plum Creek the license to build the 820 dwellings. In exchange, Plum Creek would give up the right to develop some of its property in a wilderness area somewhere else.

The TDR concept is often hailed as a valuable conservation tool. But not all Placid Lake residents see it that way. A contingent of them delivered a steep and steady defense of their backyard wilderness.

“The impending development planned by Plum Creek is a threat to Placid Lake area homeowners,” wrote 64-year Placid Lake resident Donna Burgess in a letter read aloud to the council by her daughter, Sidney. “We have seen too many of Montana’s pristine area’s developed into a jumble of structures that are a blemish on its natural beauty.”

Council Secretary Carol Evans read an additional 36 letters criticizing the council’s recent inclusion of the controversial zoning tool. The consensus from the letters seemed unanimous: Placid Lake residents oppose the Plum Creek-backed incentive mechanism. The TDR, they say, would increase the number of units in Placid Lake from 100 to 900-plus—making the outpost more than half the size of 1,700-unit Seeley Lake.

During the public comment period, criticisms were both surly and soul-searching. Some people spoke of the council and Plum Creek Timber company in dark tones usually reserved for the likes of W.R. Grace or Jack Abramoff.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said Placid Lake cabin owner David McEwan, addressing the council. “I’m aghast that anyone, for even one second, would think that the good people of Placid Lake would roll over and play dead” for Plum Creek’s plans, which would “destroy what we know is good about Placid Lake,” he said.

A concern for area residents? Plum Creek is Missoula County’s largest landowner; under state law, it can veto any development plan it doesn’t like.

To the dismay of Placid Lake residents, the company at one point suggested it might do just that. A January letter to the council stated that the company would not support changing the TDR receiving area—i.e., Placid Lake.

In the face of opposition, the council on Feb. 4 opted against voting on the TDR clause, and tabled the item until more discussion could occur.

But the controversy isn’t over—and neither are Plum Creek’s plans for TDR’s in Placid Lake.

A planning tool typically used to guide growth into certain higher-density areas and away from other sensitive, lower-density landscapes, transfer development rights are a strange but sometimes useful bedfellow for conservationists and developers.

Missoula County Office of Rural Initiatives Director Pat O’Herron says TDR’s give property owners incentives to leave properties undeveloped in high conservation-value areas–and turn them into an easement. In return, the landowner receives a development credit that allows higher-density zoning on a different property closer to a town.

Placid Lake residents say the Seeley Lake council’s December 3 land use plan did the opposite: It picked an isolated region–one worth protecting—to receive an 820-unit density cap.

Naturally, Placid Lakers wondered, “Why us?”

Placid Lakers acknowledge this reality, but still wonder why only their area was targeted.

“Some think Placid Lake is not as sensitive as other areas being considered,” Placid Lake resident Eileen Burgess-Watson told the council. “I have seen grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, sandhill cranes, loons, otters, ermine, great grey owls, bull trout, western painted turtles, and many other sensitive species living in the area. What will happen to their habitat?”

O’Herron agrees that other areas might deserve consideration when it comes to shouldering the burden.

“The landowners are correct: There are other areas that should see additional development in the Clearwater drainage,” he says. “The area around downtown Seeley Lake itself certainly should see more development.”

And while Plum Creek officials have yet to budge on the density cap they want, the company recently suggested it may indeed consider other options.

Kathy Budinick, Plum Creek’s communications director, says while company officials still consider Placid Lake an appropriate receiving area, they agree with some members of the community that “it would be appropriate” to have additional receiving areas, too.

What remains for Placid Lake? A fight that could go on for months longer—one that might not have a happy ending for all.
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