Fox Farm state land being considered for development, locals seek city help for conservation

During their Jan. 7 meeting, City Commissioners will hear from a group of locals who are asking the city to consider purchasing a conservation easement for about 80 acres off Fox Farm Road owned by the Montana Department of Natural Resources.

The Fox Farm property is School Trust Land.
Clock starts on Fox Farm DNRC property June 3 for conservation interests

There’s been a concerted effort from the DNRC to address high value parcels that aren’t generating revenue for the school trust, DNRC officials told The Electric in 2017.

One of those is the parcel off Fox Farm that is worth an estimated $1.2 million.

Andy Burgoyne, the Helena unit manager for DNRC, said the property would be reappraised and conservation easements require fair market value payment for the property.
DNRC still exploring development, sale options for Fox Farm parcel

If the city were to pursue a conservation easement, it would have to file an application and go through the state land board approval process and pay fair market value, which for comparison, equates to the city’s annual park maintenance district assessment meant to help the city catch up on years of deferred maintenance in its parks.

fox farm boundary Map-page-001

The property is located outside the city limits and is bounded by Fox Farm Road on the west, 45th Avenue Southwest on the south, Grizzly Drive on the north, and the Missouri River and Island View Drive on the east.

According to County Commissioner Joe Briggs, the county has not been approached about the possibility of it holding a conservation easement.

The property is divided into two lots. The northern portion of the parcel is roughly 43 acres with 1,500 feet of Missouri River frontage. The southern portion is about 39 acres with no river frontage.

The property is currently vacant other than a radio communications tower on the southern end that is under a commercial lease and generating about $3,000 annually for the Montana School Trust Land program, according to DNRC.
DNRC looking at options to develop land on Fox Farm Road

The mandate for school trust lands is that the properties make money for the school trust. The property on Fox Farm benefits the University of Montana.

Since the property isn’t generating anything near its value, DNRC began looking several years ago at options to add conservation options, develop or sell a portion of the land.

Conservation options are considered first, but if none are proposed through a letter of intent, commercial, residential or industrial development will be considered. No matter the proposed use, the department is required to get fair market value for the land.

DNRC staff said that the agency will work with the community to develop conservation options if there’s interest from local groups or individuals.

Last summer, DNRC began accepting conservation proposals on June 3 for 60 days.

The department received two proposals during that time. One was commercial in nature and didn’t qualify as a conservation proposal.

In September, DNRC was working with the Missouri River Open Lands group to get more information about their proposal.

Under the timeline released by DNRC last year, conservation proposals were due by Aug. 5 and after that, applicants had 45 days to submit a formal application for a license, lease, easement, etc. That deadline was Sept. 20 and applicants then had 12 months to secure proof of funding.

Burgoyne said the department would likely consider releasing a request for proposals for commercial use of the property in the near future but that wouldn’t prohibit anyone from submitting a conservation proposal.

Last summer, the group applied for a grant from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, but did not receive the funding. It has not raised any money yet, according to Al Rollo, one of the organizers.

In an email to The Electric, Rollo said, “if we can get the city to hold the easement we will be able to let people know we are serious about moving forward.”

During the Jan. 7 meeting, that group is asking commissioners to consider holding a conservation easement on the land.

In October, they wrote a letter to commissioners about their request. In November, City Manager Greg Doyon notified Burgoyne of the request and that commissioners had decided to discuss it at the Jan. 7 work session.

In their letter, the group wrote that if DNRC were to allow commercial development on the property it would “harm the character of the area, put too much pressure on Fox Farm Road and its intersection with 10th Avenue South, as well as Meadowlark School, and is not in keeping with adjacent city zoning.”

The group is asking for a letter from the city stating that it is “actively considering holding an easement on this property. Right now, this is all we are asking for, not for your to formally accept the easement. We have a lot work to do to raise money and work through the State’s process before that could happen. But, a letter from you would let the state know there is group seeking to keep this land open and would buy us critical time to complete other steps,” according to its October letter.

If the land were to be developed, it would stop serving as a recreation area, the group wrote.

“This land is currently used for hiking, dog walking and training, fishing, bird and wildlife watching, mountain biking, canoeing, paddle boarding, kayaking, Nordic skiing and snow-shoeing. The land offers these amenities in its raw, unimproved condition and has required no cost from the state for more than 50 years,” they wrote.

In their letter, the group wrote, “we know that the idea of the city owning an easement of this type might seem cutting edge for this town…Every other city in Montana holds easements of this type and have active open lands conversation groups and policies. Even a conservative city like Kalispell has an organized effort to preserve open land. We believe it is time for Great Falls to catch up to the rest of Montana, and that this project is the place to start.”

A shopping center that includes Cabela’s was opened in recent years on DNRC school trust land through a longterm commercial lease.

The local group created a Facebook page in late 2018 and organized in an effort to conserve the open space. That fall, they started an online petition to keep it as open space and the petition had about 300 signatures in Mary 2019. As of Jan. 7, it had 314 signatures.

The north half can’t be sold because of the river frontage, but it could be exchanged for a parcel that is equal or more valuable. That has been interpreted to mean equal or more riverfront on a similar river, DNRC told The Electric last spring. Past experience has shown there’s a high bar for such a trade.

The north line is the city-county boundary with major utilities stubbed at this line. The property is currently in the county.

The state received land to the north and east of the property and sold those parcels around 1920. Those areas are now residential.

DNRC staff identified the tract as having significant development potential about 10 years ago and held a public meeting to gauge interest. At that time, a group of local landowners emerged who were interested in maintaining the parcel as open space, but a formal proposal never materialized and the entire project fell by the wayside, according to DNRC.

Commercial leases are available for up to 99 years and are subject to a competitive bid process. All trust land sales are subject to public auction and Land Board approval, according to DNRC.

Got questions, proposals or comments? Send them to Andy Burgoyne by phone 458-3517 or email: jburgoyne@mt.gov.