When news of a proposed 36-home subdivision at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River broke in March, neighbors’ outcries came as no surprise. The baseline controversy—about rapid change and increased density—inherent to developments in rural Missoula County was boosted exponentially by Rock Creek’s status as a beloved blue-ribbon trout stream and the fact that neighbors had no idea what Oregon developer Michael Barnes was up to until heavy equipment began churning up his 200 acres, sandwiched between Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River.
But what wasn’t expected from the neighbors of Barnes’ Rock Creek Ranch was the sophisticated effort that the Rock Creek Protective Alliance (RCPA) has mounted in the months since. In addition to hiring well-known attorney Jack Tuholske and respected environmental consulting firm Geomatrix Consultants to work with both the developer and state agencies on a host of issues, the group has undertaken a zoning effort, developed the signature red-and-black logo that’s increasingly seen on lawn signs and bumper stickers throughout the valley, gathered more than 3,000 signatures for a petition and more than $7,000 in donations supporting the cause. The alliance has also launched a comprehensive website on the issue, and met with top state officials to discuss legislative fixes that could head off similar issues in the future.
In short, when the savvy and deep-pocketed developer began to play hardball with the fate of a much-loved chunk of land in the Rock Creek valley, neighbors suited up and responded in kind, pointing to Barnes’ recent contentious dealings with officials and neighbors over his Roseburg, Ore., development as a spur to their ramped-up response.
RCPA’s latest effort aims to create a citizen-initiated zoning district that would allow one house per 40 acres, which RCPA President John Menson says follows the Missoula County Growth Plan and would preempt Barnes’ plans to cluster 36 homes around a pond that’s now under construction. The area, like much of the county, is not now zoned. The group’s proposal has been submitted to the county and awaits signature verification; assuming the application is approved, a public hearing before county commissioners and the zoning commission will come next, and county commissioners would have the final word on whether to grant the zoning.
“We feel [the zoning district] would protect the environment at the mouth of the rivers the way it should be,” says Menson, who thinks more intense density stands to harm water quality and habitat for fish and wildlife.
While Barnes has not yet submitted to the county an official request to subdivide his property, neighbors were informed by Barnes’ representative at an April meeting of his preliminary design plans, and he’s already begun digging the pond pictured at the heart of the development. Back in March, neighbors were surprised when workers began excavating the five-acre pond at the site and hauling away gravel. RCPA filed for an injunction to stop the project, which was initially granted but later lifted when Barnes told the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) he would leave the excavated material on site, thereby avoiding the permitting required by commercial gravel use. Meanwhile, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) suspended Barnes’ permission to fill the pond after it was dug significantly larger than had been permitted. But on Aug. 29, DNRC gave Barnes approval to move forward after he created two large islands in the pond that reduced its surface area and brought it back into compliance. Barnes’ representative, Paul Druyvestein of Missoula engineering firm DJ&A, says there are misconceptions about the project—particularly that the ongoing work concerns the subdivision, not just the pond—largely because of the “great PR job being done by the RCPA.”
The home of Larry and Kat Martin, which sits directly across the road from Barnes’ development, is peppered with 11 signs that range in size from a billboard reading “No Rock Creek Subdivision” on down to a small white sign that asks “DEQ, Where Are You?” They’re incensed about a lot of things: that Barnes told them personally he would put only five homes on the former ranch; that workers have set up stadium lights and toiled noisily all night long; that displaced wildlife are fleeing the area. But what stirs them most is the inability of the state or the county to get a handle on developments like this.
“These [out-of-state developers] come with deep pockets and make a whipping boy out of Montana,” says Larry. “The treasure of Montana is no longer gold and silver, it’s her streams, wildlife, fisheries. That’s the economic engine that will run this state if they’re not destroyed by us.”
Kat says Barnes’ development has run headfirst into a group of residents who are smart enough to know this and determined and experienced enough to fight hard for it. It certainly helps that most are retired, reasonably wealthy and willing to put their money and time toward protecting their own chunk of paradise.
But they also recognize that the picture is bigger than just Rock Creek.
Menson met with Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s chief policy adviser Hal Harper and other officials including DNRC Director Mary Sexton recently to talk about the Rock Creek development and the policy problems it has exposed. Chief among his concerns is the lack of a comprehensive, coordinated approach for approving subdivisions, which he says creates legal gaps through which unscrupulous developers can squeeze. For instance, Menson says, Barnes’ was granted approval for his pond without telling anyone he hopes to ring it with houses, though the residences and accompanying lawns and cars may impact the environmental quality of the pond and subsequently Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River. These effects are damaging enough on the isolated scale of one development, he says, but potentially devastating when you consider cumulative impacts across the state.
Harper says DNRC and DEQ are examining these issues and crafting possible legislation for the January session that could tighten and update the process, and he credits RCPA with raising the state’s awareness of the issue.
“We are examining these gaps because these people have asked questions that we think deserve answers,” Harper says.
Menson says RCPA’s two-pronged attack—to change the Rock Creek development through means like the zoning district while also scrutinizing broader state policy—is the best way to address a spreading concern.
“This is not a one-subdivision issue,” he says. “Hopefully we can be used as an example to inspire change.”