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.

***

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.”

***

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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(11) comments

scooby1

First I just want to say I don't know why Mr. Hamilton had to mention anything about the previous owner being in trouble with the IRS. What does that have to do with any of this? Do people gain anything by knowing this bit of information. It seems to me that Mr. Hamilton made it seem like the lake was being polluted over the years, which isn't the case. Water was being taken out to run the wash plant which all that was doing was washing dirt and sand from the gravel. The lake was not polluted because of this operation. The shop where all the batteries, oil drums and tires were stored was no where near the waters edge. It was a safe distance away. The lake remained this clean because the previous owner wouldn't let people bring up boats and fish and it wasn't being polluted from the mining operation. The lake has always been pristine, not trashed like the article made it out to be. Don't get me wrong the place looks great now, but the previous owner was the one who physically did the cleanup.

greghamilton

Scooby, thank you for your comment. Many of your points are accurate, but there are some issues which I disagree with. The one that particularily hit a nerve is that the one that "previous owner was the one who physically did the cleanup." I spent almost 3 unpaid years of my life in an excavator, loader, dump truck, and whatever all the while pushing and dragging the previous owner into doing what he was contractually obligated to do, and furthermore paid for. I welcome the opportunity to visit with you in this regard if you so wish.

syd

Best of luck Greg and Donna. Looks like a really beautiful place.

RPT

Good luck Greg and Donna

Dub

In any other county in the state, this would have been done WITH the clean up needed in half the time and half the money. The anti development ego's at the county are stifling growth and strangling our economy. Mt. and Mrs. Hamilton should be congratulated and an award given for putting up with everything they had to deal with. You don't have to look far to see why Missoula County is dead LAST in economic growth in the state. Jean Curtiss is tired and needs a rest, time for Mark Brady to bring some common sense to the table.

DoItRight
DoItRight

He was in charge of the clean-up. He did it at his own speed and his was in charge of the whole thing. It wasn't a super-fund site, and he knew (or should have) what he was getting in to at the start.

No one said he couldn't do this, but why should the rest of the county residents pay for increased road use, school use, fire and police protection, snow plowing, etc, etc, without a proper review? To do that would be the type of shift from the public to private profit that makes the 99 percent angry.

The review was done, and he needed to make some changes so the rest of us wouldn't have to pay later. This is the way it should be. He needed a better type of septic system so they wouldn't have the problems that Seeley Lake is now facing. Good.

Personally, I am tired of stretching the county resources too thin. Like another new fire department because the existing ones are too far from the new developments. Sorry, I've paid my share of the local department many times over, and I don’t like the idea of paying for your share now too. These things need to be analyzed carefully before jumping in head first and saying "go for it" with any type of development.

Look at the big picture. There are no simple answers to complex problems. Bumper sticker slogans aren't any good in the real world.

greghamilton

Thank you for your comment, and you are correct that in 40+ states in our country, funds are available, and special considerations are given to projects that mitigate former environmentally unfriendly sites. "Brownfield to Greenfield" development is becoming wildly popular in our country and I can only hope that we may be paving the way for Montana in general, and Missoula County in specific to open up their minds and eyes.

adventure1

DoItRight said
You've been in real estate for 32 years, but you didn't know that putting in a subdivision wasn't just a rubber-stamp from the county?

*****
DoItRight, where did you read that being thought or said in this article? Good job Greg and Donna. Thanks for starting in the first place knowing it wouldn't be easy and for being persistent when it got difficult. It looks great up there now!

walter12

Normally, I do not like developers, their greed is immense, but this case is different. The Hamiltons have worked hard on this and spent alot of their own money to make something nice for some people, improve the lake, and of course, attempt to make some money for themselves the honest way. The way things are going in this nation today, he may never get another chance in the future.

DoItRight
DoItRight

You've been in real estate for 32 years, but you didn't know that putting in a subdivision wasn't just a rubber-stamp from the county?

greghamilton

DoItRight...As the developer of the site, I can assure you that I had never viewed the process of taking it through the subdivision as being a rubber stamp process. I also, along with the engineering firm, never believed that there would be so much costly resistance from the County in trying to change a private eyesore to something that is environmentally friendly,pleasing to the eyes of the public, sensitive to wildlife, and available to public. Like your screen name, my wife and I have taken many expensive and carefully thought out steps in order to Do It Right.

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