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Missoula City Council approves Ten Spoon easement but cautions housing needs

Council unanimously approves resolution to accept 21-acre conservation easement
Ten Spoon Winery Easement Winter
Posted at 9:13 AM, Mar 28, 2023

MISSOULA - Residents of the Rattlesnake received what few other neighborhoods have in recent years, that being a 21-acre conservation easement set in the middle of the neighborhood.

The Missoula City Council on Monday night approved a resolution to accept the easement on a unanimous vote. Doing so conserves the property as open space in perpetuity and allows the landowners to remain in place while establishing a public easement.

“Having worked in conservation easements for many years, when one of this value is donated, the generosity of the owners and their love of the land really comes through,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “This is private property, and luckily for us, it's also a piece of private property that has important agricultural soils, conservation values, and is a big community asset.”

Property owners Connie Poten and Andy Sponseller approached the city last year proposing to place their 21 acres, including the winery, into a conservation easement.

The proposal won quick support from city staff, which described the parcel as a wonder of open space, habitat and agriculture. The soils have been described as rich and viable, and the vineyard has produced the grape crops needed to support the Ten Spoon Winery for many years.

“We can't be a community with a single focus and maintain our vibrancy,” council member Heidi West said of housing versus land conservation. “The protection of agricultural land is vital to our long-term viability. I see this as an investment in diversifying our resources for the future.”

While the measure won unanimous support, several council members expressed another view, that being the city's need for housing, particularly in places already served by public utilities, such as the Ten Spoon property.

They also said all neighborhoods need to share in the change that comes with growth and urban infill – something a few select neighborhoods have been able to avoid.

“We're entering a new era in Missoula. Our housing prices are very high and I don't think they'll be coming down any time soon. It's just a question if we can stabilize them,” said council member Gwen Jones. “We have a great growth policy and housing policy that call for greater growth in city limits. We have several things coming to a head right now.”

Jones, who supported the measure, described the easement as “a gracious and generous donation.” But she added that future conservation easements set on flat land and surrounded by city services should undergo the same review and scrutiny often placed upon land-use decisions.

“In the future, if we have conservation easements within the city limits, not only should the Open Space Advisory Committee take a look at the proposal, but also the planning board,” said Jones. “It's a land use decision and we should be getting that input. We have to make tough discussions.”

The easement's cost to the city will amount to roughly $40,000 to cover attorney fees and the required paperwork. As an easement, the property will be managed by the city, though the donors will retain ownership

Council member Mike Nugent supported the easement and public access. But he too noted the competing interests facing the city.

“It shows the varying issues we as a community have to face and there's never a perfect solution,” said Nugent. “We do have to recognize that if we don't grow to meet the population, that's going to continue to price out current Missoulians. In the bigger conversation, there are so many things we need to address, but I don't think this is the avenue to do that.”