Public comment opens May 15 on Fox Farm state trust land easement application
Cascade County has submitted an application for an easement to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation after years of discussion to preserve about 80 acres of state trust lands off Fox Farm Road.
A local group, Missouri River Open Lands Preservation, asked the county to submit the application and is raising funds to purchase the easement.
The application is for 79.27 acres of the total 85.01-acre state-owned property. The remaining 5.74 acres in the southeast corner is currently leased for commercial purposes and will not be included within the proposed easement, according to DNRC.
MROL asked the county to apply for the easement as they may only be held by a qualified public entity, such as a local or county government. MROLP will bear all costs associated with the application and maintenance of the property.
“We have been working with Missouri River Open Lands Preservation for several years on potential options for their conservation interest on the parcel that meet our mandate to generate revenue for the school trust beneficiaries,” Heidi Crum, Helena unit manager, said in a release . “We are excited to see the application move forward and will work to keep the community informed of next steps.”
County approves application submittal for school trust land easement
MROLP wants to maintain the property as open space used for recreation by dog walkers, bird watchers, hikers and nature enthusiasts. The intend to keep the property it its current natural state, according to Al Rollo of the group.
In March, the County Commission approved submitting the application, about about five years of discussion between MROLP and DNRC.
The U.S. Congress granted the land to the state through the Enabling Act of 1998. Known as state trust lands, DNRC is constitutionally mandated to manage and lease the land to generate revenue held in trust to support Montana common schools and other institutions.
County to consider submitting application for easement on school trust land
In the case of an easement application, a one-time payment for a perpetual easement is paid into the trust. The trust that would benefit from this potential easement payment is the University of Montana.
The 30-day comment period pertaining to the easement application opens May 15 at 8:00 a.m. with comments accepted until 5 p.m. June 15.
Substantive comments are needed to inform the department’s decision-making. A substantive comment could be one that identifies an alternative or resources issues and concerns, according to DNRC. The department doesn’t base its decisions on a count or tally of how many comments are for or against the project or how many times a certain resource issue and concern or alternative is brought up, according to DNRC.
Comments may be submitted online here or in writing to this address: DNRC Helena Unit, Attn: Fox Farm Easement Application Comments, 8001 N. Montana Ave., Helena, MT 59602
Substantive comments will be responded to and considered in the environmental analysis document which helps inform the DNRC decision on the permit application. The completed environmental analysis document will be published online.
County Commissioner Joe Briggs said during their March 8 work session that the action doesn’t mean the county is committing to owning the easement, and is contingent on the private group raising the funds to purchase the easement and an agreement between the county and the private group for the long-term management of the property.
The action is a “long time in coming,” Briggs said during the work session.
DNRC still working with group, county on easement for Fox Farm land 
Andy Burgoyne at DNRC said in March that once the application is received, the agency will start the process for a new appraisal.
Burgoyne said that timeline depends on the procurement process and availability of the selected appraiser.
He said one to three months is a conservative estimate for getting the new appraisal, but it could take longer.
Rollo, of MROLP, said that that they have raised more than $100,000, but some has gone toward a survey and some will go toward the appraisal costs.
To obtain an easement, a public entity would have to pay fair market value for the land.
In 2018, the land was appraised at $1.2 million, but that appraisal has expired and the entity wanting the easement would have to pay for a new appraisal, according to DNRC.
Burgoyne told The Electric in 2022 that he doesn’t anticipate the property value to have decreased.
The appraisal is good for one year to establish the property value and then DNRC sets deadlines of completion of incremental steps in the process as soon as the application is received and deemed complete, Burgoyne said.
Discussions on Fox Farm land continue with DNRC 
In 2018, DNRC began considering options for the land since it wasn’t generating revenue for the school trust, which is the agency’s mandate, Burgoyne said.
“The first purpose of state trust land is to generate revenue, this isn’t generating hardly any revenue,” Burgoyne said. “Our mission doesn’t allow us to just let land sit vacant.”
The local group expressed an interest in obtaining an easement to keep the primarily vacant land as open space, but has yet to raise the funds required or get the appropriate agreement from either the city or county, as the land can’t be held by a non-profit or private entity, according to DNRC.
Options still being considered for DNRC land in Fox Farm area 
In April 2020, County Commissioners unanimously voted to send a letter to DNRC expressing their interest and willingness to obtain an easement for the school trust land. The property is two parcels totaling about 80 acres.
Fox Farm state land being considered for development, locals seek city help for conservation 
If the easement is approved, the group has one year to raise the fair market value payment, according to DNRC.
If the county was granted the easement, it would also become responsible for maintenance and management of the property, which could include weeds, mowing, pest control and law enforcement, according to Burgoyne.
DNRC still exploring development, sale options for Fox Farm parcel 
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.
Clock starts on Fox Farm DNRC property June 3 for conservation interests 
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.
DNRC looking at options to develop land on Fox Farm Road 
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.
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.
The Fox Farm 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.
DNRC looking at options to develop land on Fox Farm Road
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 in 2019. 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 lands were granted for the sole purpose of generating income for support of the common schools and other public institutions. The Enabling Act mandated that the lands, along with their proceeds and income, would be held in trust for the beneficiaries. As a means of generating revenue, a stipulation in the Enabling Act prohibited the state from disposing of an interest in these lands unless fair market value is received. ‘Disposal of an interest’ is considered to be the sale or exchange of the lands, or the granting of any use of them through issuance of a lease, license or easement, if such use is deemed to have a compensable value. Recreational use has been deemed to have a compensable value,” according to a DNRC fact sheet.
Originally, Sections 16 and 36 of every township were granted as school trust lands, but some of those sections couldn’t be acquired because they were already homesteaded, were within Indian Reservation boundaries, etc., according to DNRC.
The state was able to acquire other lands in lieu of those that couldn’t be acquired. At one time, the Department of State Lands made loans on private lands and held the deed as collateral. If the private landowner defaulted on the loan payments, the state acquired the deed to those lands, so the state trust now holds more than the original sections, according to DNRC.
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.
A shopping center that includes Cabela’s was opened in recent years on DNRC school trust land through a long-term commercial lease.
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