On one hand they are 201 acres, several of which were severely messed with when they were targeted for a controversial subdivision a few years ago.

On the other:

“This really is the gateway to the magnificent Rock Creek Valley,” Lewis Kogan of the Five Valleys Land Trust told Missoula County commissioners at a hearing Wednesday in the county administration building.

Five Valleys submitted and commissioners approved up to $400,000 of open space bond funding toward purchase costs that will amount to nearly $2 million near the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River.

“It’s a great solution to a big problem,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss, who took part in the 3-0 vote to approve the purchase.

It was the fourth and final open space project approved by the county in 2012, the sixth since last December, and the 18th overall since county voters approved a $10 million bond in 2006. Nancy Heil, a planner for the county’s Rural Initiatives office, said the Rock Creek purchase leaves the county roughly $1.6 million of its $5 million share.

By coincidence the $1.6 million figure was the purchase price of the so-called “Confluence Project at Rock Creek” that Five Valleys Land Trust announced in May when it reached an agreement with Michael Barnes’ LEMB Co. LLC. The Oregon real estate investment company owns the property that straddles both sides of Rock Creek Road.

In 2006, Barnes proposed to put 36 homes on the west side of the road. The suggestion and subsequent excavation of an eight-acre pond after the development received planning board approval spurred intense reaction.

“We had letters and emails from around the world, not just the United States and Montana,” Curtiss remembered Wednesday.

Barnes pulled the proposal and put the land up for sale in 2009. He began negotiations with Five Valleys in early 2011.

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The acreage includes 370 feet along Rock Creek, a blue-ribbon trout stream, and more than a mile along the Clark Fork, which also provides critical bull trout habitat. It’s home and/or corridor to a wide array of wildlife and birds, including at least 15 species of concern, Kogan said.

Another plus is the agreement with the landowner to the west to donate a conservation easement on 630 additional acres if the sale goes through. With a couple of other conservation easements already in place in the neighborhood, Kogan said of 1,300 acres of land at the mouth of Rock Creek, all but 200 acres will be protected.

Five Valleys Land Trust’s intention is to focus future land use on habitat restoration and public access, for fishing and trails. Initially, 40 acres on the east side of Rock Creek Road will be opened to the public.

The land trust plans to restore the pond and affected habitat and remove a berm along the road to open the view of the fetching meadow. If it makes sense to open up some access on the west side after that, “we’ll certainly walk down that road,” Kogan said.

Five Valleys typically buys conservation lands with a potential future buyer in mind, but not in this case.

“One of the things that’s a little bit different about this proposal is that it’s for an acquisition that would be held, at least for the foreseeable future, by a nonprofit,” Heil said.

“Five Valleys has put themselves in a position of sort of being a holding company, if you will, for a piece of property until something down the road comes into place,” said John Rimel of the Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee, who spoke in support of the purchase. “They did that with the park property at Milltown to facilitate the creation of park land there. This is a little longer-term project and I would reckon probably one of the bigger projects they’ve undertaken.”

By chipping in as much as $400,000, Missoula County becomes a major player as one of at least a dozen different funding sources. One of the county’s stipulations, as recommended by the Open Lands Committee, is that it come to a management agreement with Five Valleys. Commissioners already had a draft agreement Wednesday.

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In a busy day of hearings, commissioners also approved in unanimity amendments to the county’s growth policy that paves the way for the creation of an industrial tax increment financing district at former mill site in Bonner. At the same time, they OK’d provisional adoption of the Bonner TIF, with final approval pending another public hearing on Nov. 28.

Steve Nelson and Michael Boehme of Western Montana Development bought the mill site last December. Nelson said funds from the increase in the district’s tax base over the next 15 years won’t solve all the infrastructure challenges, but they’ll help. And that should enhance the value of former company homes in Bonner that Western Montana Development also owns but aren’t included in the TIF district.

Paul Bohan of Missoula offered the lone voice of dissent at the hearing.

He said that taxpayers outside the TIF district won’t realize the incremental increase in tax base before the project sunsets in 15 years or more.

“The only people that get that increase are the developers, which lowers their cost, which makes their development (worth) more,” Bohan said. “Basically the county is taking on the risk of the development rather than the developer.”

But even though it won’t benefit directly, the Missoula Rural Fire District embraces the project, Assistant Fire Chief Brent Christofferson told commissioners.

Bonner School is in the same boat, and Superintendent Doug Ardiana said that while the school board didn’t take a position on the TIF district, “we’re very supportive of industrial growth and getting folks back to work.”

Jerry O’Connell, founder and executive director of the Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper, urged the county and mill owners to consider a public accessible buffer zone along the river at the mill site for river access such as one that stretches for 32 miles above the mill. That one extends 50 feet above the high-water mark. Chris Brick of the Clark Fork Coalition seconded the sentiment.

“I think one of the biggest tools we have going for us is the fact that we have two local owners who love the river as much as we do,” Curtiss said. “We’ve worked with Steve and Mike for the last year or so on this.”

“We will be very sensitive to the river and we’re sensitive, I think, to a lot of those kinds of things that are going on out there environmentally,” Nelson said.

Later he added, “We’re very interested in creating a river corridor and either trade for some land or do some other kind of – I don’t know what it would be. We’re very sensitive to that. We look forward to that.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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