One of the largest tracts of undeveloped land ever listed for sale in the Missoula urban area, 105 acres of hilly, scenic grasslands in the South Hills, was recently put up for sale for $16 million by a wealthy philanthropist.
If developed, it could radically transform the area with an increase in population density and traffic while boosting the city’s tax base.
Development would ease the pressure on the current housing crunch but would also put demand on city services in the area. If bought by someone with the means to conserve it, it would remain a prime piece of open space and wildlife habitat.
The property at 5001 Hillview Way includes just one six-bedroom home and a guesthouse, is surrounded by residential neighborhoods and is near the Mount Dean Stone open space project in the works by the Five Valleys Land Trust.
The land is zoned in such a way that, theoretically, it could hold 3,141 multifamily units and 694 single-family homes. However, Mike Haynes, the director of the city’s Development Services office, said that isn’t likely to happen.
“The more reasonable development scenario is 660 units due to the parcel size and configuration, hillside standards, mixed zoning and development constraints,” he said.
The property is owned by Sophie Craighead, a philanthropist based in Kelly, Wyoming, who is the daughter of the late wealthy minerals industrialist Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., according to Jackson Hole Magazine. Sophie Craighead is married to ecologist Derek Craighead, who is the son of the late, legendary Missoula-based conservationist John Craighead.
“This property is one of the most prime pieces of developable property ever listed in Missoula or western Montana, for that matter,” said Ed Coffman of ERA Lambros Real Estate, who is the co-listing agent for the property along with Bill McDavid of Hall and Hall Real Estate in Missoula.
“Once you get to the top of the gentle slope, it flattens out. You look around here, and you’ve got terrific views when you don’t have forest fires,'' Coffman said. "And the whole thing with this, by my way of looking at it, is (development) is going to grant access by putting roads and trails in here to all these people all down in here, all of Missoula actually. They’ll be able to ride their bikes and walk and access all this (Mount Dean Stone) property up here for miles and miles and miles.”
Coffman agreed that the design, topography and available utilities will likely lessen the maximum density allowed.
All but 40 acres are located within city limits, and the rest is county land. There are six different zoning designations and seven different legal parcel descriptions. Along Hillview Way, the city zoning allows for light commercial on 3.5 acres, which could include bed and breakfasts or other businesses.
Coffman said it’s not up to him whether the property gets developed or bought by someone who wants to preserve it as open space.
“It’s zoned for a staggering amount of density,” he explained. “It would take time (to develop). It’s a big project.”
McDavid said that the property is more suitable for housing development than other agricultural lands in the county that are in river riparian areas with prime soils, such as the Frenchtown area.
“I think probably a lot of people would feel like it would be great to see one person buy this and keep it as is, and it would be great," McDavid said. "But then again, I would think from a conservationist perspective, there’s a pretty strong argument that these places get developed, places like this, which is a much better alternative than development that’s going to spread you out all over the geography in the greater county."
Haynes said that every building permit that is issued on certain properties in the Hillview Way area will help pay for the recent reconstruction of Hillview Way.
Elizabeth Erickson, the city's Open Space Program Manager, said if a proposed open space conservation project at the Oxbow Cattle Company between Missoula and Lolo is approved later this month, $320,000 will remain of the city's $5 million from the 2006, voter-approved, $10 million open space bond the city shares with Missoula County.
Erickson said the city's open space planning region extends beyond the boundary of the city limits, and there have been a handful of projects that the city and county financially collaborated on because they were mutually beneficial.
But with open space funds dwindling, there's no way the city could afford the $16 million price tag to save the Hillview Way property, obviously.
"That property is beautiful grassland habitat and scenic open space, and it also has the potential for helping connect a trail from Hillview Way up to Rimel Road," Erickson said. "That being said, it's also in close proximity to a lot of services. There's good schools nearby, transportation infrastructure and parks. It's an opportunity to balance residential development with potentially protecting the more important habitat sections of the property."
Part of the land contains an old gravel pit, and that's where the highest density housing would be allowed, Erickson said.
"Generally, open space conservation always has to be balanced with Missoula's housing needs, and that could happen within close proximity," Erickson said. "The city's growth policy anticipates residential growth in this area, and it shows fairly dense development as a proposed land use. There's an opportunity for both development and preservation of open space."
A spokesperson for the Five Valleys Land Trust said that organization is not commenting on the property.
A map with interactive layers of the property can be found online at https://mapright.com/ranching/maps/6e09d3c6b2e0d72d6730062d735136b7/share.