Open space bond: Panelists debate future growth, taxes and preservation needs

Hikers stand in a field in the South Hills and take in the views of the Missoula Valley. Voters will decide this November whether to fund Missoula’s continued open space and stewardship efforts, or let the valley grow as it will. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When Amber Sherrill and her husband moved to Missoula two decades ago to start their lives and raise a family, they were struck by the city’s beauty and its access to open space, trails and scenic vistas.

Mount Jumbo had recently been protected as city open space, and a new wave of growth was building on the horizon. If not for the forethought of community leaders, she said, Missoula would be a very different place.

“I understood then that the open space, greenways and rivers that drew us to this place were also drawing businesses to our community, tourism dollars from across the country, and students and faculty to our university,” Sherrill said. “I’m personally thankful to those who had the forethought to plan for the future of this place.”

Sherrill, executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust, argued in support of a new $15 million open space bond and perpetual stewardship levy on Monday during a debate hosted by City Club Missoula.

Sitting opposite her was City Council member Jesse Ramos, who has emerged as an ardent opponent of the bond and levy. While he’s not opposed to open space, he said, Missoula has enough already. Additional city taxes and a concern over affordable housing are top community concerns, he added, and he contends the bond would make both issues worse.

“I’m not opposed to open space by any stretch of the imagination, but what I am concerned about is people being taxed out of their homes right now,” said Ramos. “There are folks living on a fixed income that have worked their entire life, paid off their home and done the right thing, but their taxes keep going up.”

If passed, the open space bond would cost the owner of a $265,000 home roughly $18 a year. The city’s perpetual stewardship levy, also approved for the ballot, would generate an additional $500,000 annually and cost the owner of the same home $14 a year.

Only city residents would pay the levy, while all county residents would pay for the bond.

“If this was the first bond we were looking at in 10 or 12 or 30 years, that would be one thing, but it’s not the case,” Ramos said. “We’re not facing an open-space crisis. We have to learn how to prioritize things in Missoula.”

Amber Sherrill, executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, right, and City Council member Jesse Ramos, center, debate the need for a new open space bond on Monday at City Club Missoula. Sherry Devlin of the Missoula Current, left, moderated. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With a nod from the City Council, Missoula County commissioners agreed in June to place the bond on the November ballot. Voters have approved two open space bonds before, including the first in 1995, which was used to protect Mount Jumbo, and a second $10 million bond in 2006.

Sherrill said that second bond leveraged nearly $30 million in additional state and federal funding. In doing so, it protected 15,000 acres of wildlife habitat, 9,000 acres of agricultural land, 40 miles of waterways and 19 miles of new trails.

Those projects included the preservation of Travelers’ Rest in Lolo and the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River, among others. It also began conservation efforts on Mount Dean Stone, and it removed several Missoula Valley farms and ranches from development pressure.

“We live in an area that’s growing quickly,” said Sherrill. “Outdoor recreation and scenic open space have become a driver for both tourism and businesses locating from more urban centers. It’s particularly important right now that we plan for the future and protect and manage this piece of our growing economy.”

Sherrill, who touched on the economic benefits of open space, cited ClassPass as a recent example. The tech firm, based in New York and San Francisco, cited Missoula’s open space and quality of life as key to its decision to choose Missoula as the site of its third North American office, which opened early this year.

The company looks to grow to 175 local employees who earn above the median local wage. But Ramos said ClassPass and others like it made their decision to move to Missoula based on existing conditions, not future promises.

“I’m grateful they came here – they’re a great company and they’re providing a lot of good jobs,” Ramos said. “But they came here on our current amount of open space, which is fine and fantastic, but they’re not coming here because we promised them we’d be purchasing more and more and more in the future. We have to realize when enough is enough.”

A high-end housing development creeps up the slopes of the South Hills in Missoula. Advocates of a new open space bond say it’s needed to plan for growth. Opponents say it will add more taxes and hurt affordable housing efforts, and isn’t necessary. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While Ramos struggled to articulate how open space would handcuff the city’s efforts to develop affordable housing, he did suggest that removing land suited for development would further pinch the city’s stock of housing and continue to drive up prices.

The valley’s agricultural lands are especially suited for development, he said. Those same parcels would be protected under the new open space bond and, therefore, be removed from potential development.

“While a lot of these properties that are purchased may not pay a lot of taxes – they’re ag land and undeveloped – they have the potential to be developed, and the potential to add to the tax base, and potentially offset some of the services if they’re properly developed,” Ramos said.

Sherrill disputed Ramos’ argument, saying affordable housing and open space are not mutually exclusive. Rather, she said, having the option of using open space to develop the urban area is a vital planning tool that can make neighborhoods stronger.

“As the population of Missoula continues to grow, planning for the future is critical to our ability to keep areas of the city livable, preserve an important economic driver, and have the tools necessary to plan for this growth,” said Sherrill. “The open space bond and stewardship levy would give us one of the tools we need to do this.”

According to data provided by Missoula County, roughly nine bonds are currently active, including three issued at various points from the 2006 open space bond. Of those, one issue ended in July while the two others sunset in 2028 and 2036.

Other active bonds include the library, Fort Missoula Regional Park, and three bonds associated with the Missoula County Detention Center. According to the county, those bonds were refinanced in July.