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A model of a planned 145,000-square-foot building for Missoula College is displayed during an open house put on by the University of Montana on Oct. 3, 2012, to present its plans to build at the South Campus. The building would replace the aging and crowded facilities in use on South Avenue.

TOM BAUER/Missoulian

A community group opposed to locating Missoula College on the University of Montana’s South Campus renewed its threat of litigation this week, sending a letter of warning to the school’s legal counsel.

Quentin Rhoades, representing Advocates for Missoula’s Future, reaffirmed the group’s opposition to any South Campus construction in a letter directed to UM legal counsel Lucy France.

Rhoades sent the warning one week before UM plans to host community forums on the placement of Missoula College.

“In view of the apparent continued consideration of the ‘South Campus’ as a legally viable option, we are preparing a lawsuit to seek a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, and final injunction forbidding the university from building a college or university campus of any kind on the Golf Course athletic fields,” the letter reads.

The university is considering two sites for Missoula College, one on the South Campus and the other on East Broadway.

On Friday, Rhoades said the warning pertains only to the South Campus. Advocates for Missoula’s Future has opposed any development on the site, citing a 1928 deal they believe secured the land for athletic use.

The Advocates group, headed by Jack Lyon, who is Rhoades’ client, believes the state accepted the property for a price below fair market value. At the time, they argue, the exchange was made on an expression of understanding that the land would be used in perpetuity for student recreation.

The Montana University System disagrees with that view, saying the land was acquired more than 70 years ago to meet the “best use and benefit” of students, including their educational needs.

School officials say they have the deeds to back up their argument.

“The university has conducted extensive legal research, both back when the South Campus Master Plan was developed, and again this past year on the South Campus land,” said Peggy Kuhr, vice president of UM communications. “We simply disagree with their legal claim.”

Rhoades sent the body of the letter in May to Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. Christian later responded, saying he disagreed with the group’s position.

Rhoades, however, said his clients aren’t satisfied with Christian’s response.

“All Commissioner Christian has said is that he disagrees with us, but he hasn’t set forth any legal authority, rationale or evidence for his position,” Rhoades said. “We’re waiting to engage in a debate on the legal analysis or factual analysis, or both.”

In Thursday’s letter, Rhoades also suggested the placement of Missoula College would be left entirely up to UM President Royce Engstrom. However, Rhoades believes Engstrom never saw the original May letter noting his client’s position.

France on Friday said Engstrom had, in fact, received and reviewed the original letter, along with its legal argument, in May.

“It is the university’s position that the South Campus is a legally viable option for the Missoula College building,” France said in her response to Rhoades on Friday. “If a decision is made to locate the building on the South Campus and you (Rhoades) still believe there are grounds for filing an injunction, we can certainly share legal analyses as the case is briefed in court.”

Rhoades said the university’s response lacks any legal basis for building on the South Campus.

“They offer neither facts nor law that would conflict with our client’s legal analysis,” Rhoades said. “It appears they do not intend to disclose their position until after they make a decision, and not even then unless we file a lawsuit.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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