Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While a final decision on the public purchase of Marshall Mountain remains in play, Missoula County on Tuesday approved an option agreement to purchase 160 acres at the base of the mountain.

The agreement with Izzy Dog LLC represents a procedural step that will be followed by a number of decision points and public hearings, which are expected to play out over the coming months.

“It's an option agreement. If we enter into it, it would give us the option to purchase the property. We could exercise that option within six months. Once that option is exercised, it becomes a contract,” said Kali Becher with county parks and trails.

The option agreement approved on Tuesday sets the purchase price for the 160-acre Izzy Dog parcel at $1.8 million. While an appraisal is still pending, Becher described the price as a bargain sale.

“A bargain sale is the sale of real estate below the appraised value,” she said. “We don't yet know the appraised value, but we're confident it's more than that.”

The option agreement signed Tuesday also sets a closing date of Jan. 31, 2024, so long as the county votes to move forward with the acquisition. And since the county represents the public and isn't considered a private buyer, the agreement also sets a number of conditions that require the county to reach decision points at public hearings.

Steps to follow

Missoula County in April joined city officials and Marshall Mountain advocates in announcing that it would take the lead in securing public ownership of the mountain's 480 acres.

That includes the 160 acres owned by Izzy Dog, 160 acres owned by the Five Valleys Land Trust and an additional 160 acres owned by The Conservation Fund.

Becher said the county is working to finalize an option-to-purchase agreement with both Five Valleys and The Conservation Fund. While those agreements are not yet final, the option with The Conservation Fund sets a $400,000 price for its 160-acres. The agreement with Five Valleys is $75,000 for its property.

The agreements with Izzy Dog and Five Valleys could close on Jan. 31 while agreement with The Conservation Fund is likely set for April 2024, Becher said.

The option agreements also require the county to secure funding to make the purchase, and because most of that funding will come from the Open Space Bond, the county is required to go through its own public process.

The mountain's ski slopes have given way to top-notch mountain biking trails.
The mountain's ski slopes have given way to top-notch mountain biking trails.

That includes recommendations from the city's Open Space Advisory Committee and the county's Open Lands Committee. Both held a joint meeting last week and recommended approval using $1 million in Open Space funding from the county and $1 million from the city.

“Those recommendations are passed on to each governing body,” Becher said. “It results in a joint city-county meeting where they'll vote on whether or not to approve the use of Open Space Bond funding.”

A "generational" project

Nostalgia for the 1980s and 90s when Marshall Mountain served as a local ski hill remain strong. While the lack of snow ended reliable skiing, the mountain has since emerged as a popular mountain-bike park while serving as an outdoor classroom for area children.

The mountain also offers a quiet, forested getaway just minutes from Missoula. In 2022, according to the city, more than 3,500 permitted attendees used the mountain's base for one event or another.

Marshall Mountain served as a local ski hill until 2003, though it could again become a hub of recreation.
Marshall Mountain served as a local ski hill until 2003, though it could again become a hub of recreation.

A master plan is expected to detail the various programs the mountain can support, how those programs will be funded, and any long-term costs associated with public ownership of the property.

“For the actual decisions around ownership and management, those would happen through the Parks and Trails Advisory Board,” said Becher. “They would make recommendations pertaining to ownership and management. Their recommendations would go to the Board of County Commissioners for a vote at a public hearing.”

While the process of acquisition still has a number of hurdles to cross, the option-to-purchase agreement with Izzy Dog marks a step in the process.

“This is the next big step in a generational project,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

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