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County approves $135K for Potomac easement

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The Missoula County Commissioners approved spending $135,000 in open space bond money on a conservation easement in the Potomac Valley Thursday.

The easement will cover a 195-acre ranch owned by Hugh and Barbara Sheehy in Potomac, just south of Highway 200. The area is currently used for hay and cattle production, and includes 30 acres of wetlands. It also sits between two other private agricultural lands, totaling 2,513 acres, already covered by easements.

“It’s the centroid of connecting many other private working ranches within the Potomac Valley” said Vickie Edwards, conservation project manager for the Five Valleys Land Trust, at Thursday’s meeting.

The Sheehys bought the property in 2013, amid concerns that it would be subdivided, and have since been working to improve its agricultural productivity. When final, the easement will be held by the Five Valleys Land Trust and stay with the property as it changes owners. It will prohibit subdivision of the land and place restrictions on construction. Crop planting will be prohibited in the ranch’s wetland zone, but some cattle grazing will be allowed.

Hugh Sheehy told the commissioners that he hopes the easement will preserve not just the land, but agricultural opportunities.

“For young farmers, young ranchers wishing to get started, you can’t do that if there’s no land available, and by converting this property to agricultural land that can’t be changed, that is a parcel of land that can be used by a young person.”

The Missoula County Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee approved the proposal in November, and all three commissioners voted Thursday to spend $135,000 in funds from the 2006 open space bond to support the project. This expenditure will leave about $413,000 in the county’s portion of the $10 million 2006 open space bond.

The easement is valued at $400,000, and requires about $60,000 worth of work from the Five Valleys Land Trust. In addition to the $135,000 from the open space bond, the Trust secured $200,000 in funding from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Agricultural Easement Program. The Sheehys agreed to donate $92,150 in kind and in cash, and the Five Valleys Land Trust will fund the remaining $33,100. 

The Five Valleys Land Trust’s Edwards said she expects the transaction to be completed by late summer or early fall.

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