An easement to create permanent public access to 1,520 acres of land containing segments of the Whitefish Trail moved a step closer to completion with unanimous approval last week from the Whitefish City Council.
The proposed deed of public recreation use easement for the Beaver and Skyles lakes area goes to the Montana Land Board on Nov. 19 for consideration.
Heidi Van Everen, director of the nonprofit Whitefish Legacy Partners leading the Whitefish Trail project, said the organization is hopeful the Land Board will support the easement.
Whitefish Trail proponents have been working with state agencies for nine years to develop a 55-mile trail system through state trust lands around Whitefish Lake. Twenty-two miles have been completed, with another leg planned in the Beaver Lake area over the next two years.
The city of Whitefish has used a land-use license to develop trails and allow access thus far, but that leaves the door open for a situation similar to the Kidsports complex in Kalispell, Van Everen said, where the youth-sports organization was concerned rising property values could affect its ability to affordably lease the school trust land. Kidsports also is working toward buying a permanent easement to the recreational complex land.
The state is mandated to capture full market value with all of its leases on school trust property.
“We don’t want to be subjected to checking in every year” to see what the lease price will be, Van Everen said.
The deal to establish permanent access to the Beaver and Skyles lakes area, which includes Lion Mountain, is a complex, multilayered undertaking that involves not only the city of Whitefish and state of Montana but also private landowner Michael Goguen.
Goguen completed a land swap with the state in 2008 that allowed development of the Lupfer Road trail segment farther west of Whitefish. At that time Goguen donated $3 million for trail construction and conservation of state lands.
In the latest transaction involving Goguen, a venture capitalist and Whitefish philanthropist, he would pay $3 million for 580 acres near Beaver Lake that would become the Beaver Land Bank. Goguen’s limited liability company, Two Bear Properties, would have ownership of the land, but development would be restricted to two homesites to preserve scenic vistas.
The land banking proposal also will be considered by the state Land Board on Nov. 19.
The financial end of the recreation easement for the 1,500 acres still is being worked out. An appraisal has valued the land at somewhere between $6.6 million and $7.2 million.
While the city of Whitefish would purchase and hold the easement, Whitefish Legacy Partners is raising the money. Terms of the transaction are being negotiated with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Van Everen said, adding that details will be worked out prior to the Land Board meeting.
The easement is expected to cost about $7 million.
Whitefish Legacy Partners will use $1 million of Goguen’s original donation for the easement, plus $1 million the group is raising. Goguen has said he will put more money in to reach $7 million, Van Everen said, which means he will be putting in close to $5 million.
The $7 million for the easement, plus the $3 million being paid by Goguen to establish the Beaver Land Bank, means the state will get $10 million in school-trust revenue from the Whitefish Trail project.
A third prong of the Whitefish Legacy lands initiative is securing trail recreation licenses in the Swift and Lazy creeks, Lupfer Road and Spencer Mountain areas.
“It puts a placeholder in place,” Van Everen said, to ensure the existing trail system continues to grow while generating revenue for the state school land trust.
The Land Board will consider the recreation licenses at its December meeting.
The lands initiative supports the 2004 Whitefish Neighborhood Plan that stipulated community goals for the management and long-term vision for some 13,000 acres of school trust lands around Whitefish.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.