EMERALD LAKE – They moved mountains of industrial rubbish, navigated through a maze of county subdivision regulations and changed the name of this pretty little lake to something, well, pretty.

“Tote Road Lake” just doesn’t look good in real estate brochures.

“That was the easiest part of it,” Missoula real estate broker Greg Hamilton said Tuesday of the lake’s name change.

Recession-wracked years, a couple of million dollars and two lawsuit settlements with Missoula County later, Hamilton and his wife Donna are within days of being cleared to move ahead with the first phase of a 30-lot subdivision called Emerald Lake Estates on the hillside above Salmon Lake.

“It’s been challenging – seven years without a paycheck, almost,” Hamilton said. “It’s come with its challenges, but we’re really proud of what it’s going to end up looking like here.”

What it won’t be is the gravel mining and crushing operation that the previous owner ran alongside the deep, green glacial lake before running into tax problems.

The site as the Hamiltons bought it came replete with a wash pit, a concrete batch plant, a magnesium chloride storage facility and “a general dumping ground for broken down equipment,” Hamilton said. “We hauled away hundreds of junk batteries, oil drums, and truck tires after we bought it” in October 2005.

It’s the little lake that travelers drove by, curious but warned away, for most of the past 50 years on their way to and from Montana Highway 83, the larger Big Sky Lake above, the Kozy Korner Bar and Steak House, and the old town of Woodworth.

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The Tote Road got its name as the supply route to Anaconda Co. lumber camps at Woodworth and Salmon Lake.

The lake itself was once owned by the company and has been in private hands since at least the 1950s, Hamilton said. At one time, a father and son ran a commercial fishery operation out of the lake.

It’ll take some work, but the Hamiltons aim to restore that with homeowner association dues “with an eye toward creating and maintaining a trophy trout population.”

From what he’s been told, Emerald Lake is a natural glacial pothole lake. Its distinctive deep green color is caused by a carbonate mineral that governs how light reflects off it. No other lake in the Clearwater chain is like it.

No motorized boats will be allowed on Emerald Lake, which is about a half mile long and 85 feet deep in spots. While a number of reservations have been taken, and there’s actually a buy-sell on some of the property, no more than five lots a year will be sold to mitigate the effect on wildlife.

Deer are constants, and some elk travel through from the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the state’s 55,000-acre Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area nearby. Grizzly bears have been known to drop by.

Emerald Lake Estates and the development surrounding the nearby Big Sky Lake are unusual in that they’re residential developments adjacent to thousands of acres of state-managed wildlife habitat, said Tim Worley, a planner for Missoula County’s Office of Planning and Grants.

“This is a hub for mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk, as well as a number of non-game species,” Worley pointed out.

As a result, the Hamiltons have agreed not to allow building on a 30-acre strip on the far side of Woodworth Road, which runs along and above the south edge of the lake.

“Another feature of this project on the environmental end is that they have agreed to install type 2 septic systems, which do much more treatment of septic effluent before it’s released via the drainfield than standard systems,” Worley said.

Hamilton said some 30,000 yards of “liquid, gooey mud” was removed from a lagoon between the lake and the gravel crusher. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation conducts ongoing water quality tests.

“The lake,” he said, “has healed itself.”

Lakefront lots in the first of two phases are listed at prices ranging from $159,900 for just over two acres to $299,900 for two to 4.4 acres. Covenants will govern such things as the siding allowed on homes – all natural wood, log or rock. Minimum footprints are set at 1,100 feet for a one-level home and 900 feet for two levels.

“We want stuff to look like it belongs here and it’s been here,” Hamilton said. “We don’t envision any McMansions here, but we certainly don’t want to have tarpaper shacks either.”

Instead, a sort of working man’s community of mixed seasonal and year-round homes will emerge over the years.

It won’t be like Flathead Lake or even Seeley Lake, and lot prices are adjusted down accordingly. “It’s going to be quieter here because of the lack of boats,” Hamilton said. “It’s not going to be ostentatious. I don’t envision it being that way.”

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By the time the Great Recession hit in 2008, the Hamiltons and their engineering consultant, Professional Consultants Inc., were well into the rehabilitation of some 11 lakeside acres, smoothing out the old gravel diggings and scrapping all that old machinery.

“It was kind of an industrial dump,” Hamilton said. “The abuse that was being heaped upon this lake was unconscionable.”

They already had millions sunk into the project, and weren’t about to back out. They were also fortunate to have a lender that has “worked with us through all the challenges the county has put in front of us,” said Hamilton, who’s been a broker with Prudential Real Estate for 32 years.

He and Donna, who’s also a real estate broker with Prudential, own a home on Big Sky Lake and have other properties listed there.

“We drove past this for years and years and it was an eyesore,” Greg said. “We were acquainted with the owner and he let it be known to us that he was in real trouble financially with the IRS.”

The Hamiltons weren’t sure if they were buying the 150 acres as a long-term investment or to develop it.

“But ultimately we wanted to see the public being able to use this,” he said. “It seemed like a terrible waste of such a beautiful little resource here.”

Their reasons weren’t completely altruistic.

“We had expected that we could at some point sell it for more than what we paid for it, but we didn’t realize how challenging it had become working with the county,” Hamilton said. “Are we looking to get rich off this? No. We never were.”

But they also didn’t want to see someone buy Emerald Lake and create their own personal trophy house.

“And there’s a lot of that happening up here,” Hamilton said. “I think that having this property available to 30 or more families is much more in keeping with my mentality of how you should enjoy western Montana rather than having some megabucks guy come in and build himself a mansion on one end of it, and lock the public out again.”

The developers need the consent to plat from one more lien holder. Then, after all this time, the plat for phase 1 can be recorded. It could happen as early as Wednesday.

The Hamiltons worked with the Twite family on the Linda Vista subdivision in Missoula in the early 1990s, and they’ve done their own developments before. But Emerald Lake Estates is the largest they’ve undertaken on their own, in dollars and cents, in acreage and in headaches.

Knowing what he knows now, would he do it again?

“I would,” said Greg, 59, who is retired from the Marine Corps. “Certainly not from a monetary stance, but I’m a big outdoorsman and this lake was just being ruined. If I could have done it on a break-even basis I would have done it.”

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

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