Building a $100 million paradise in Montana's Paradise Valley

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EMIGRANT, Mont. - In the early 1900s, when Yellowstone Park Superintendent Horace Albright looked upon Paradise Valley, his neighbor to the north, he proclaimed: "If that area were in any other state, it would have been a national park."

Framed by mountains and split down the middle by the Yellowstone River, Paradise Valley has always drawn people to it. Jim Bridger spent the winter of 1845 here with the Crow Indians; the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious sect, made the valley its headquarters in the late 1980s.

Montana has become increasingly trendy, and these days, Chico Hot Springs, once a local secret, is a destination resort. A new post office was built in Emigrant in 1991, mostly to serve new Church Universal and Triumphant members, and even though the church has lost numbers in recent years, the area has continued to grow. New this year is a branch of First National Bank of the Rockies, which looks like a ski chalet, and soon to come, a 5,000-square-foot convention center.

Lots for just $850,000

Now, the valley may be just months away from becoming home to one of the most exclusive and expensive subdivisions in Montana. Supporters say the proposed Buffalo Ranch development is the "best use" of the 1,676 acres of benchland just west of Chico Hot Springs. They say it will boost the area economically, and they trust that former Brand S lumber-mill owner Jack Brandis is a responsible developer.

Critics say the development may harm the area environmentally, increasing traffic and putting a strain on schools and other services. They also question whether the project, which includes homes, a golf course and condominiums, is viable. And if it is, do current residents want neighbors who can afford to spend $850,000 for a lot, at least another half million for a home and a few thousand more to golf in private on what is promised to be a world-class course? Hours of public testimony have ranged from passionate to rambling.

Officials know they cannot turn a subdivision down simply because some may not want wealthy neighbors, but the other concerns are not lost on them. Nor are the private-property rights of the developers.

At a recent Park County Planning Board meeting, chairwoman Chloris Zimmerman told the audience that the board would try to make a decision that would protect the resources, culture and community of the area, while allowing Brandis to do what he wants.

A ripple of laughter spread through the crowd, mostly made up of opponents, at the notion that both could be accomplished.

A few minutes later, Zimmerman herself acknowledged, "That is a ... tall order."

When the Planning Board, a citizen-advisory group to the County Commission, grudgingly recommended approval of Buffalo Ranch earlier this month, members wished out loud that there was zoning in the area. The land slated to become 60 homes, 38 condominiums and the golf course is now used as rangeland, although most agree it is marginal grazing at best. One of the previous owners liked to say, "Jackrabbits have to pack a lunch to get across it."

Park County commissioners were slated to begin deliberations on the subdivision Oct. 19 and may issue a decision by the end of the month.

If the development goes through, prospective buyers will be asked to fork over money the likes of which Montana has rarely seen for subdivision lots.

Less than a stone's throw away from the proposed Buffalo Ranch development, 20-acre lots sell for a reasonable $70,000. One of the few proposed developments that may prove to be more expensive than Buffalo Ranch is near Big Sky, a development where residents would have a private ski hill.

Privacy and the promise that the subdivision will be of high quality will be selling points of Buffalo Ranch, says project manager Dave Molebash. A limited number of memberships will be sold for the golf course.

"We're fairly confident in our ability to have it pay its own way through sales," Molebash said, adding that the development should be built out in 10 years.

That is part of the problem, say critics. Buffalo Ranch "appears to perpetuate the "land as commodity" approach that is altering - in negative ways - the landscape and communities throughout our region," Jim Barrett of the Park County Environmental Council said in a letter to the Planning Board.

Critics say wildlife habitat is not adequately protected and they worry about chemicals used on the golf course leaching through the gravelly soil and into the Yellowstone River. They also worry about increased traffic on roads in poor condition and at already dangerous intersections. They say voters, who just three years ago spent $900,000 to remodel Arrowhead School, will be asked to pay for another addition.

In short, they say that in the long run they will be the ones to pay for this project, which is estimated to cost more than $100 million.

"I don't think anyone here sees it as a viable thing to have in Paradise Valley," resident Bob Watters said at a recent meeting.

But Molebash points out that the land now yields less than $500 a year in taxes. That will be significantly increased once it is developed. While studies have shown that residential developments rarely pay for the services they demand with the taxes they generate, Park County Planner Ellen Woodbury said that with a commercial operation like the golf course, Buffalo Ranch may pay for itself.

Molebash also says Brandis is willing to go above and beyond what any other developer has done to mitigate concerns. Although Molebash has not warmed to the idea of moving 20 prime home sites at the request of the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, he points out that more than half the development will be put into a conservation easement, forever banning it from development. A plan dealing with wildlife management will be drawn up with state wildlife officials, and Brandis has agreed to work on growth impact issues ranging from schools to roads.

"I just want it to be fair both ways," Molebash says.

Note: this article accompanies another article in this issue, "Citizens tame growth - their way."

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