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A new addition to the county's open lands program is in the works.

The county's open lands board is recommending the 55-acre Lodmell family ranch be purchased through the county's open lands bond program. The program, approved by voters, calls for the sale of bonds to purchase conservation easements on prime areas of county farm, ranch and open lands.

Permanent conservation of the land, the board said, would protect vital wildlife corridors. The Lodmell property is sandwiched between the recently-protected Sawtooth ranch and a previously-protected parcel.

"We thought it was a good value for the community and it's also adjacent to other conservation easements and those conservation easements are adjacent to National Forest, and so from a wildlife standpoint it provided some continuity," said Alan Maki, chairman of the open lands board.

Property owners in this case are asking only for legal fees to facilitate establishment of the conservation easement - though in this case those fees amount to about $35,000.

"They basically are not looking for any additional money per acre," Maki said. "They are just looking at covering legal costs, so the taxpayer is getting a great bargain."

The open land board's vote, made last week, was unanimous. It now goes to the county commission for approval.

Jim Ellingson, the open land board's vice-chairman, said the wildlife benefit was the biggest reason to support this purchase.

"We felt that connecting that passage was good," he said.

While this project is a good one, Ellingson said he'd like to see more farm land protection purchases; besides purchase of development rights on the Woods family farm - the county's first open lands project - all the other projects have been aimed at protecting wildlife habitat.

"I would like to really see it get back to preserving farm land," he said.

As with all the other open lands easement purchases using taxpayer dollars, this deal will be facilitated by the Bitter Root Land Trust.

Trust director Gavin Ricklefs said Lodmell property was the missing link joining existing easements and open lands.

"It's a spectacular opportunity," he said. "It creates a contiguous block of habitat."

He added: "It's building on the work that's been done in there already, and that's exciting. We have neighbors coming together for a common vision about what the neighborhood is going to look like. They are taking action to make sure what they have stays special."

The county was supposed to have the open lands bonds money in hand already but the sale has been put off, said Klarryse Murphy, the county's chief financial officer.

What happened was county officials learned before the bonds could be sold a new property tax formula had to be devised. Montana code says that in the case of a bond sale for open lands, properties which are tax-exempt must be omitted from the bond repayment formula, said Murphy, . Though the percentage of lands in the county currently tax exempt is very small, said Murphy, the total land value had to be reworked to exclude them nonetheless.

Ravalli is one of just a handful of counties in Montana with an open lands bond program, Murphy said, and there is a learning curve.

The bond sale, to be conducted by D.A. Davidson, was originally to be held in January but has been delayed. Now, said Murphy, it ought to happen in May or early June.

A hearing on the Lodmell easement purchase will likely be held in early May.

Reach reporter Jeff Schmerker at 363-3300 or at jeff.schmerker@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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