Gated communities go in with a bang

  • YOUR OWN PIECE OF PARADISE: The banks and floodplain of Montana's Big Hole River, a blue-ribbon fishery for trout and grayling, are targeted by two new pricey gated developments

    (Matt Vincent photo)
  • A CABIN OUT WEST: The first of several lodges planned for the Silver Bow Club was a timber skeleton in September, with the cottonwoods and channel of the Big Hole River in the background

    (Matt Vincent photo)

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The impacts of rural gated communities go beyond any social insult to the people who live outside. These developments can have very real consequences for the land as well. One place it's apparent is Montana's Yellowstone Club, a vacation-home development so exclusive that its full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal show only the gatehouse.

Offering about 800 homesites on 13,400 acres, the Yellowstone Club reportedly requires members to prove at least $3 million net worth, has security guards who used to protect U.S. presidents, and claims to be the only such development in the world with its own private ski mountain (seven lifts and 30 runs).

But "it's hard to regard repeated violations of environmental law at the Yellowstone Club as anything less than arrogance," the Bozeman Daily Chronicle scolded in an editorial last year.

The club's bosses and contractors have been charged - and will likely be fined - by state and federal environmental agencies, for bulldozing streams and obliterating wetlands while carving out a golf course and the private ski runs in the mountains near Big Sky Resort during 2000 and 2001.

In August 2001, while wildfires raged on the next range over and forests were so tinder-dry that local counties imposed bans on burning, the Yellowstone Club staged a spectacular fireworks show for members and guests, filling the sky with sparks and falling embers. So great was the outrage among those outside the gate that the Chronicle devoted another editorial to scolding the club for a "serious lapse in judgment."

"Not a good idea"

The scolding over the Yellowstone Club has quieted down lately, but several other ritzy gated developments planned in Montana are triggering similar concerns. The new developments aim to occupy the banks of the blue-ribbon Big Hole River, which attracts anglers and boaters from around the world. The river flows through wide-open ranch country and canyons 40 miles south of Butte, but some of the riverside ranchland has been snapped up and repackaged.

Investors from Nebraska are turning 700 acres of riverside ranchland into a gated development called Meriwether Ranch, with plans to build two bridges across the river to access 34 lots.

The bridges in particular have aroused opposition from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Trout Unlimited and other conservation and sporting groups.

"All of a sudden ... riverfront property in the Big Hole is owned by people who don't even live there year round, with important differences and goals in managing the river," says Jennifer Dwyer of the Big Hole River Foundation, a conservation group. "For everyone else, the experience of angling and boating may be dramatically changed in a negative way. Now people floating down the river (will) have to look at these monstrous houses."

Building along the banks or in the floodplain, as the developers plan, is "fundamentally not a good idea" and will likely require artificial stabilization of the banks, to the detriment of natural vegetation and hydrologic processes, Dwyer says (HCN, 3/27/00: The last wild river).

But development plans have been received favorably by Silver Bow County and Beaverhead County, the two local governments with jurisdiction over the land. Both are said to be desperate for increased property tax revenues, and according to investors, final approval is expected any day.

Meanwhile, a Florida-based developer, David Pepe of Benchmark Capital Group, is planning to build the gated Silver Bow Club on several thousand acres along the river about seven miles north of Meriwether Ranch.

Economy puts a cork in it

Some local governments resist such developments. Last year, Gallatin County commissioners, who oversee land use around Bozeman, rejected a swanky golf-equestrian development because it constituted sprawl. Ranchers in the Boulder River Valley west of Butte self-imposed a subdivision limit of no more than one home per 640 acres. But in the rural West, such protection measures are rare.

It may be difficult to address the environmental impacts of such developments, but some towns have tried to lessen the social affront. Several hundred miles northwest of the Big Hole, Whitefish, Mont., has flatly rejected gated developments. The Iron Horse, a new golf-ranch property there, offers 361 small-lot homesites that cost up to $3.5 million, and most have been sold. But it doesn't have a gate, because Whitefish's master plan aggressively bans them, making the town one of the first in the nation to do so.

"All roads in our jurisdiction must be open to public access," says iconoclastic Whitefish mayor Andy Feury, now in his second term. "That's part of what makes our town what it is. We said to the developers, 'Look, you're going to be part of our community.' "

At the moment, the economy has become more of a limiting factor than any local opposition. When Pepe launched the plan for the Silver Bow Club in June 2001, for example, the price of a membership and homesite was $3 million. Then came September 11, the economy went up in smoke nationwide - and Pepe couldn't sell his 23 lots at that price.

So he lowered the minimum buy-in to $1.75 million, and then briefly put the whole Silver Bow Club property up for sale. Now, he says, he'll go ahead selling lots at a slower pace.

"People are being very cautious right now," says Pepe. "But there still is a strong desire by people to be in the Rocky Mountain West."

Ray Ring is High Country News Northern Rockies editor. Florence Williams and Matt Vincent helped research this article.

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