Monday, December 22, 2014
What's New in the New West

Real Estate

Steward Extraordinaire: Jim Cusker’s Long Commitment to Missoula Farmland

In 2005, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners appointed 18 rural landowners to the Open Lands Working Group, a new committee to help preserve rural Montana traditions, conserve open space and protect treasured landscapes from unwise development. The members were asked to go to the areas of the county they represented and take photos of what was so special about the land. Naturally, they brought back pictures of mountains and meadows, rivers and birds, wildflowers and children, elk and trees –- all of the things Montanans love and want to save for future generations. But one representative from Grass Valley brought back something different. Every single picture in Jim Cusker’s slideshow featured … irrigation pipes. “If you just saw Jim’s slideshow, you’d think there was nothing but irrigated land out there,” says Wendy Ninteman, the western director of the Land Trust Alliance who shared the story. “Jim didn’t think there was anything more beautiful than that.” Read More »

Foreclosures in the Flathead: Hundreds on the Brink

In the past six months, the job description for homeownership counselors at the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana has shifted dramatically: from helping people buy a home to helping them cling to the one they already have. “I would say they’re probably seeing at least as many people in danger of foreclosures as they are first-time homebuyers – or more,” Lil Dupree, an administrator at CAP of NW MT (formerly Northwest Montana Human Resources), said. As the recession continues to hammer the Flathead Valley, more of its workers are facing sudden reversals in financial stability because of layoffs and reduced hours. As a result, an unprecedented number of homeowners here are falling behind on their mortgages and finding themselves in serious danger of losing their homes. To be sure, the Flathead is no Arizona or California. But the financial and emotional strains that surround a foreclosure are still palpable here, as families struggle to regain their financial footing and the real estate market shifts. And for such a small population, the numbers are striking. In the first six months of this year, 459 notices of trustee sales were filed with the Flathead County Clerk and Recorders office. That’s just 18 shy of last year’s total. Read More »

Missoula Council Members File Lawsuit Over Zoning Revamp

The effort to replace Missoula’s flawed zoning ordinance with a more clearly written version is being challenged in court, potentially delaying an already two-year-old process. Three Missoula City Council members July 9 filed an application for a “writ of mandate” against the city in Missoula County District Court. If granted, the legal action would prohibit the council from proceeding with its review of the zoning ordinance rewrite. The lawsuit was filed by Dick Haines and Renee Mitchell of Ward 5 and Lyn Hellegaard of Ward 4. They are being represented by the Wittich Law Firm in Bozeman. Read More »

Flathead Planning: Will Nasty Debate Ever Abate?

In the last two weeks, rumblings over planning issues in Flathead County have escalated to explosive debate, with heated public meetings, a lawsuit, calls for the planning director’s resignation and allegations of illegal planning activities and fiscal abuse. As a result, much has been left in limbo. Fed up citizens continue to push for drastic changes within the county’s planning and zoning department, while the office staff and community supporters of neighborhood planning have moved to defend their work. The recent controversy began simmering when a handful of citizens raised questions over an online Yahoo! group being used by the volunteer committee rewriting the Lakeside neighborhood plan. Because the forum wasn’t accessible to the public, detractors called it secretive and illegal, arguing that it violated open meeting laws. Then, a public meeting in Somers meant to provide information on neighborhood planning dissolved into a shouting match when opponents interrupted. Read More »

Firefighting Needs Major Overhaul, Study Shows

Wildfire prevention efforts should focus far more on homeowners and key ecosystems -- and far less on random fires deep in the wilderness, according to a new study by the University of Montana, University of Colorado and Colorado State University. The study -- which calls for an overhaul of the National Fire Plan --takes a hard look at federal efforts to prevent wildfires that are increasingly scorching the West and threatening homes near forests and wilderness. Only 11 percent of National Fire Plan wildfire-mitigation efforts in the last five years have occurred near people’s homes or offices, where it's critically needed, the researchers conclude. Read More »

Montana Realty Board: Number of Agents Is Falling Fast

It seems not many people want to be real estate agents anymore, and established agents are getting out of the business like never before. About 40 percent fewer new real estate agents received a license from the Montana Board of Realty Regulation in 2008, and about 15 percent of old members didn't renew last year, said Grace Berger, head of the state's regulatory agency. Here are the numbers: Last year about 500 new applicants passed the requirements to become a real estate agent in Montana, down from about 800 in 2007. That year capped about a decade of growth in the number of licensed agents in Montana. Read More »

Downturn Has Builders in Bankruptcy, or Just Getting Out

Small construction companies are seeking bankruptcy protection in Montana like never before, say Montana bankruptcy lawyers. "They're just getting out. Selling everything and going," said James Screnar of Screnar Law Firm in Bozeman whose clients include North American Pipe and Welding of Three Forks. Many of the contractors have filed for Chapter 7s -- which amount to a liquidation -- because they don't see a future, Screnar said. He described scenarios in which developers commissioned work but didn't pay, while contractors and subs ordered materials -- wood or drywall or pipe -- on credit. When the developed couldn't sell the homes, the contractors didn't get paid, either. Many are stuck with the debts to suppliers. Read More »

Credit Suisse Prepares to Continue Legal Fight for Yellowstone Club

Edra Blixseth will be deposed by Credit Suisse lawyers this Saturday in California as part of the ongoing legal battle over control of the debt-riddled and bankrupt Yellowstone Club near Bozeman. In notices filed late Wednesday, Credit Suisse said it plans to depose Sam Byrne of CrossHarbor Capital Partners, the Boston-based hedge fund that won a struggle to fund the penniless club until the end of April, as well as the club's professional managers and a representative of the leading member group. Edra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the Yellowstone Club on Nov. 10, citing debts of more than $360 million. The club had no money and was on the brink of closure. The largest creditor is a collection of investors led by Credit Suisse, who are owed more than $307 million. Chapter 11 allows a business to remain open while reorganizing its debt. Edra won control of the club in August after a bitter divorce with Tim Blixseth, the club's founder, and the architect of its monumental debt. So far in the proceeding, Tim has been notably absent, although a lawyer representing him recently signed onto the case. When Edra took over the club, its finances were in shambles, its accounts virtually empty. More than $88 million in member deposits had disappeared. Some news outlets have described the Yellowstone Club as the victim of the worldwide financial crunch, but at the bankruptcy hearings it seems the club was a financial train-wreck-in-progress years ago. Member deposits of more than $88 million, for instance, are gone, and one allegation in a previous lawsuit says Tim and Edra Blixseth funneled more than $200 million of the Credit Suisse loan to themselves as profit, spending it on private jets and California mansions. Read More »

At An Old Millsite, Big Plans Get Put on Ice

A prominent brownfield clean-and-build project in downtown Missoula has been put on hold until the economy picks up. The weed-infested former Champion Mill site just west of Ogren Field, the home of Missoula's minor league baseball team, has long been an example of urban blight and a symbol of the lost glory days of Montana's logging industry. More than two years ago, local developer Kevin Mytty and finance partner Ed Wetherbee teamed with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and others to clean the land of its minor environmental contaminants -- basically a lot of sawdust -- and transform it into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood with houses, apartments, townhouses and space for commercial and retail tenants. Read More »

CrossHarbor Wins Inside Track In Yellowstone Club Bankruptcy

Image from the Yellowstone Club's Web site.

A hard-fought struggle for control of the bankrupt Yellowstone Club ended mid-afternoon on Wednesday when a federal bankruptcy judge gave CrossHarbor Capital Partners, a Boston-based hedge fund, the right to loan the club $20 million while it reorganizes its debt - a process that will likely last until the end of April. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ralph B. Kirscher issued his order after weeks of negotiations and three days of court testimony. The Yellowstone Club filed for bankruptcy protection on Nov. 10, citing debts of more than $360 million, with about $311 million owed to investors assembled by international bank Credit Suisse. Read More »