Open Space

Hikers walk the trails on Waterworks Hill, one of Missoula's open space lands, in February 2018.

A majority of voters favored approving a proposed county-wide $15 million general obligation bond for the preservation and acquisition of open space. The same was true for a proposed perpetual city-wide conservation land stewardship levy on Tuesday's ballot.

With all 52 precincts partially reporting Wednesday morning, 22,031 people voted for the bond and 15,521 had voted against it. On the perpetual levy, 13,030 voters had voted “yes” and 9,433 had voted against it.

The Secretary of State's office showed 86,331 people registered to vote in Missoula County on Tuesday night, and 38,885 votes had been cast by 10 a.m. Wednesday morning.

“We are thrilled that Missoula County and City voters have chosen to renew our commitment to protecting open space, important farmland and access to rivers and trails,” said Julie Gardner, treasurer of the ballot committee and a local real estate agent. “Missoula County is facing unprecedented growth right now, and I think people understand how urgent the need is to protect land and water for future generations.”

The 20-year, $15 million general obligation bond would add an additional $13.46 per year to the property tax bill of a home in Missoula County with an assessed market value of $200,000.

The Conservation and Responsible Stewardship Perpetual Mill Levy of 4 mills would apply only to property owners within city limits, and would add $10.80 per year to a $200,000 home in perpetuity. However, Missoula County chief financial officer Andrew Czorny said that as a home’s market value grows, the tax on a perpetual 4 mills will also grow.

The city and county would split the $15 million from the general obligation bond. City and county officials have said the money will go to acquisition of new open space, including conservation easements, trails, wildlife corridors and habitat. A big chunk may be spent on Clark Fork River restoration areas or on a permanent river access at the popular Buckhouse Bridge on the Bitterroot River, which had to be closed by this year due to trash and overcrowding.

The City of Missoula maintains more than 4,500 acres of open space, or conservation lands.

County taxpayers have historically supported open space and agricultural land conservation. In 1980, city voters passed a $500,000 conservation bond. In 1995, a $5 million open space bond passed, and in 2006 county voters also voted for a $10 million open space bond, most of which has been spent.

Gardner said the 2006 bond protected 14,866 acres of open land, waterways, wetlands, wildlife habitat and agricultural soils. Each of the 49 projects from the 2006 bond was vetted and approved by advisory committees, the County Commission or the Missoula City Council after public hearings. The money has been used to leverage funds from other nonprofits and government agencies as well.

Poody McLaughlin of Five Valleys Audubon said she was delighted to support the bond.

"I think the pressure of all the people moving into the valley have created pressure on open spaces and habitat for wildlife," she said. "And wildlife habitat is a big reason people move here so we wanted to make it clear it's important to save it."

The open space bond also has its share of detractors. Turah resident Rocky Sehnert said that while he believes open space is good, he also said voters and county leaders “just assume more is always better.”

“I think open space is a good concept, but I just don’t think we need $15 million more worth when $10 million sufficed once and $5 million did too,” he said. “It could seriously impact the amount of developable land.”

Missoula has an affordable housing crisis, as the median sales price has gone up by more than 30 percent since 2010 while wages have not kept pace. There’s been an unprecedented construction boom in the past few years as developers try to offset the lack of housing supply. Since 1986 more than 30,000 acres of farm and ranch land in Missoula County have been converted to subdivisions or other nonagricultural uses, according to the county’s Community and Planning Services Office. Thousands of acres of farmland have been voluntarily protected by landowners using the bond funds.

A study by Headwaters Economics last year found Montana’s outdoor recreation economy supports $2.2 billion in wages, $286 million in tax revenue and 71,000 jobs.

Missoula County voters have approved several general obligation bonds in the last decade, and with the passage of the newest open space bond they all will combine to add roughly $300 per year to the property tax bill of a home worth $200,000. The largest additions to most county tax bills from bonds have come from the combined $158 million Smart Schools 2020 bonds that voters passed in 2015. On average, the combined elementary bonds will add $148 per year on a $200,000 home and the combined high school bonds will add $66.07 per year on a $200,000 home.

The market value of a home, which is assessed by the state, is very different from the median sales price in Missoula County, which was $268,000 in 2017. The assessed market value of a home in Missoula County over the past few years is often much lower than the price a home would sell for on the open market. To find the assessed market value of your property, visit itax.missoulacounty.us/itax/.

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