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The Rural Subdivision, Deluxe

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a series about the proposed Ameya Preserve development near Livingston, Montana.

  Looking north at Wineglass Mountain on the Ameya Preserve. Photo courtesy of Ameya Preserve

For all the talk surrounding the Ameya Preserve, the new luxury development in Montana’s Paradise Valley, the project is only in its initial stages and little is formally finalized. Developer Wade Dokken and his team received preliminary plat approval for Phase One in 2006 but have yet to submit a final plat application. As it stands, Phase One will consist of 203 acres and will include 59 homesites as well as a central village area with 35,000 square feet of community buildings including a main lodge, a nature center, an arts center, a children’s barn and a chapel.

There are no details yet on any of the other phases, which the developers indicate will bring about 250 more homes to the property. The future of two sections of state land within Ameya property remains unresolved, and no land has yet been put into a conservation easement.

But an extensive design and planning process, which Ameya developers say sets it apart from other large rural developments, is well underway. Two Colorado-based businesses – Design Workshop and Michael Claffey Ecological Consulting – have produced plans going well beyond what’s required of a Montana subdivision.

Kristofer Johnson of Design Workshop wrote of Ameya, “This is a genuine engagement to bring an understanding of the land from the very beginning … The quality and integrity of maintaining Ameya’s ecological systems takes priority over the home sites, not the other way around.”

Ameya’s Phase One plat application indicates that extensive science and planning went into the placement of every homesite, with particular attention to mitigating impacts on the 50-plus species of wildlife living on Ameya property.

“Wildlife habitat impact reduction was and remains a prime consideration of the Ameya Preserve,” the application states. “One of the main marketing tools for the development includes the wildlife present on the ranch and surrounding habitats along with the concept of wildlife habitat preservation.”

Dokken and his team have said they will mitigate effects to wildlife by only developing 500 of their acres, but initial planning estimates and a map submitted to the Park County Planning Office indicate four phases of development that would have to be on more than 1,000 acres. The uncertainty is creating some tension between the developers and the Park County Planning Office.

“There are a lot of discrepancies regarding the proposed [Ameya] subdivision that we come across that are usually between what is submitted to our office and what is advertised in the media and other publications,” Park County Planner Mike Inman says.

The Phase One application goes so far as to break down the development’s overall disturbance to the vegetative community: 51.96 acres of coniferous forest (25.5 percent of total coniferous); 44.94 acres of aspen (22.1 percent of total); 84.02 acres of non-forest vegetation (41.3 percent of total); and 11.23 acres of deciduous shrubland (54.8 percent of the total). The developers also say lot boundaries will avoid habitats and maintain movement corridors, while simultaneously ensuring “all lots will border preserve land and offer expansive views.” (Click here to view the land use plan for Phase One on Ameya’s website.)

Design Workshop used a sophisticated “data-atlasing process” to map the topography, vegetation, wind, wildlife, and water. Heather Henry of Design Workshop says an initial directive from Dokken set the course for the work.

  Ameya Preserve Founder Wade Dokken, center, looks over plans for Ameya’s Phase One Preliminary Plat Application with Park County officials and members from Ameya’s engineering and design teams at a site visit to the property in September 2006. Photo by David Nolt.

“This became unique in the attitude to set the land as the highest priority in the development process,” Henry says. “You name it, we really needed to understand how it would work.”

Design Workshop formed four categories or “paths” for their data-atlasing process: natural resources, human comfort, development and infrastructure. Each path took several factors into account. For example, the natural resource path included water for wildlife, vegetative communities, wildlife patterns for five indicator species, slope, habitat cover and the viewshed from the Paradise Valley floor.

People and wildlife tend to gravitate toward similar habitat, and the development plans will put homes “on the edge of open aspen stands” (Aspen forests are critical but troubled wildlife habitats in the West). Henry acknowledged the challenge:

“There is generally, not always, a conflict where the best land for development is also the highest quality for wildlife,” Henry said. “There was a high level of challenge, but with the mapping and the process we put together we were able to put together a balance. Conflict [between humans and wildlife] in general is the highest level of challenge for a project like this. The two indeed do and must go together to save and preserve the high priority natural resource preservation land.”

Jim Barrett, director of the Park County Environmental Council, makes it a point to pore over subdivision applications in Livingston and Park County, and Barrett says Ameya’s Phase One is head and shoulders above any rural development plan in the county.

“I was kind of blown away [by the initial proposal],” Barrett says. “We’re used to someone coming in with a not very imaginative or creative proposal…It’s not perfect, but if we were to write the handbook on smart growth development on a rural property being sensitive to the history of the area, sensitive to the culture, sensitive to wildlife, viewsheds and open space, when he presented it to us that’s basically what it was.”

Craig Kenworthy, the senior director of conservation for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC received an undisclosed “small” donation from Dokken), agrees that Ameya’s Phase One is unprecedented in conservation efforts for large subdivisions in Park County.

“In terms of a development where they set goals for being environmentally responsible on a large scale, this is the most sensitive one,” Kenworthy says “That said, if you’re going to put that many houses in there … you’re always going to have an impact on wildlife.”

Dokken’s efforts on the design side have been paired with philanthropic efforts in the community. He pledged to build a Habitat for Humanity house for every 50 houses sold at Ameya, offered to fund two advanced placement teachers at Park High School to help build an “International Baccalaureate Program,” donated $50,000 to the Park County Rural Fire District and also donated 200 acres of land on the Paradise Valley floor to Livingston-based Farms for Families, which will oversee a local, organic farming program there.

Dokken also promises a $1 million endowment with a matching program for Ameya residents to help with “the unmet social needs of the local rural community.” The developers say, “Potentially, up to 10 percent of the revenue [from Ameya sales] will be dedicated to stewardship, community outreach, philanthropy and other charitable activities.” Previous Ameya documents indicated “Ameya Preserve is dedicating approximately 15 percent of gross revenues to philanthropy. This should exceed $75 million in the lifetime of our vision.” Other material indicates a Community Stewardship Organization “will assess a 0.5 percent transfer fee on all real estate sales to fund a foundation” initially endowed with $2 million in contributions linked to homesite sales.

Ameya material also consistently lists numbers for the property taxes Ameya will produce – $5 million every year for Park County schools, according to Dokken.

All the philanthropy, of course, can be viewed – at least in part – as an effort to win friends and influence people. On more than one occasion, the developers publicized “partnerships” with local organizations without formal agreements. When an Ameya newspaper advertisement declared the Livingston-based Corporation for the Northern Rockies (CNR) as a partner, CNR Executive Director Lill Erickson responded with a letter to the editor.

Erickson wrote, “I read with surprise in Friday’s paper that the Corporation for the Northern Rockies (CNR) was listed as a partner with the Ameya Preserve in their full-page ad. CNR has no formal relationship with the Ameya Preserve, nor do we endorse the project.”

All the conscientious planning, moreover, does not change the fact that the Ameya Preserve is a major development in the middle of major wildlife habitat and is well removed from existing infrastructure. By some measures, this would preclude the project from truly being “green.”

“Their idea of conserving a piece of land and mine are different,” says Park County Commissioner Jim Durgan. “I’ve lived out in the valley and I’ve seen so many changes … It appears to us that he is in the process of creating a gated community, but he doesn’t have anything to sell but the view. The culture that’s there and that western view that everybody thinks they know so well, that’s being destroyed. They’re destroying the very thing that brought them out here. I’ve seen it time and time again.”

And then there is the tricky issue of the state sections and the related issue of public access. The potential sale of the state land to Ameya has become the focal point for critics of the project. Public lands, once viewed as a burden by many rural Western communities, are now considered an invaluable asset – and not one to be sold to developers.

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a series about the proposed Ameya Preserve development near Livingston, Montana. (Click here to read Part I, click here for Part III, here for Part IV and here for Part V.

About David Nolt

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  1. It’s ironic that so many “conservation-minded” people feel like it’s OK to attack Wade Dokken for destroying the rural character of Park County, but many of these same critics – local elected officials in particular – don’t have the courage to advocate for countywide zoning to stop rural sprawl from occurring in the first place.

    I’m not an apologist for Wade Dokken. In fact, I hate to see open ranchland converted to subdivisions as much as anyone. But it’s patently unfair to hammer Mr. Dokken for articulating his vision of how conservation and development can co-exist, while letting all the other Park County developers who only care about raking in millions off the hook.

  2. Three cheers to David Nolt for his reporting on growth issues in Park County. Keep up the good work.

  3. It is not only OK for “conservation minded” people to attack Wade Dokken it is imperative. County Commissioner Durgan gets it right: a lot of us have “seen it time and time again”. Dokken doesn’t seem to understand many of “us” suffering from his diagnosis of “class envy” have seen this kind of gussied up crap before; in California, Colorado and right here in Montana. The Yellowstone Club looks like pretty good planning given that Gallatin County has (had) none. It began as and remains an embarassingly vulgar disregard for the environment and the communities near by.

    That a bunch of private property rights neanderthals have squashed any growth policy visioning in Park County does not give any developer with a carefully cultivated “green” vocabulary and a nod to “social justice” any license to proclaim a second (third, fourth) home development in a substantially pristine and fire prone landscape in the greater Yellostone as a “conservation development”.

    Specious claims of “mitigation” on site or afar do not excuse the unconscionable consumption of resources no matter how grand a meal and fine wines Alice can cook up to make its resident swallow their excesses.

  4. Who said “money can’t buy me love?” Dokkin plays host to a few Democratic Party fundraisers and presto, we’re all free-market Republicans now. Even the never-ending C.U.T. freak show didn’t move Park County toward rural zoning. It’s the combination of wind, money and the Hollywood Dream that blows the brains out – even the big ones.

  5. These kind of land deals, as we have learned with Cabela’s Trophy Properties involving the Weaver Ranch or the Galanis Horse Butte development, seem unstoppable. But, are they at least steerable or have the gifts in Santa’s toy sack, like major bucks to MSU, bought silent acceptance without interference?

    Pete Feigley, mentioned in David’s first Ameya article, has strong objections to amenity development schemes in sensitive wildlife habitats:

    Pete writes:

    I recommend that you take the time to educate yourselves relative to environmental issues, both locally and globally, prior to jumping behind a clever marketing scheme. There is a bumper sticker from the early environmental movement – “Think Globally, Act Locally. This adage sheds light on the folly of the Ameya’s marketing scheme.

    Ameya Preserve is marketed as an exquisite luxury development that is both green and a boon to conservation. A recent full-page ad in our local Livingston and Bozeman, MT newspapers boldly claims: “This project preserves natural resources that couldn’t be preserved by any other means.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

    First, building 2nd, 3rd, or more luxury homes in sensitive wildlife habitat, such as elk winter range or bear habitat (black and grizzly) is nothing more that an extravagant waste of natural resources, not a preservation of natural resources; no matter how you look at it. (Think Globally, Act Locally!) Second, you should do some reading on the problems associated with displacement and habituation of wildlife. The risk of mortality increases dramatically for bears that are displaced and/or habituated to humans. Natural Resource Defense Council considers “people and their houses” as the biggest problem grizzly bears face.

  6. You’re starting the story in the middle. Why don’t you go back and find out why the ranch owner sold? It is almost impossible to fight the kind of money these guys have, the best bet is to make it possible for the rancher to keep a vialbe ranch. Again, why did the rancher sell his place?

  7. It is interesting that the public weighs in during this type of a forum with significant public comment that Park County officials should hear, but they were largely silent during the public comment and public hearing processes on this subdivision as well as other subdivisions in Park County. After the fact comments do not assist the county in guiding growth and development. If you truly care about these issues, one way or another, you need to show up before your elected officials and comment when your comments count.

  8. Just want to keep emphasizing as to how these “liberals” like Dokken can get away with whatever the hell they want…check out his friends in the link below:

  9. traildog, to be fair it’s not political or social philosophy that enables people like Dokken. These people are successful at achieving their goals because: first, they have goals; second, they have the skill set; third, they have guts; fourth, they have means; fith, they seize opportunities, sixth, they have tenacity to overcome obstacles, and seventh, they attract and make allies and friends. The ‘pieces of Heaven’ that Montana has for sale is very attractive to people like Dokken who are blessed with 1-7.

  10. Craig

    I’d note that the folks at the Buffalo Field Campaign have all seven qualities that you mention above. The one thing that Wade Dokken and his ilk have that the BFC doesn’t have is a devotion to moral turpitude. No wealth is come by honestly. Not even close.


  11. Robert, I wish you good health and blessings of the Season.

    The ‘allies’ I was referring to, and encompassed in your comment to the 3rd Ameya installment this morning, are those in traildog’s Gallintin Democrat Party pictures link with Mr. Dokken. Governor Schweitzer is very prominent. The BFC doesn’t seem to have such powerful friends to rewrite the IBMP and leash the BFC’s most hated foe, Montana’s DOL. It will be interesting to see where David takes the 4th installment.

    I would interesting in reading a column by you as a PS to David’s work as to your perspective on how to address these commercial ecotopias.

  12. a Note on Public Comments for Subdivisions. How often is the Public heard ? Tax dollars is what the county is looking for. I have been to subdivision meetings where a very large amount of people come and they are armed with valid points and concerns and the county does not listen. I feel the Public is tired of not being heard so they give up on coming to the meetings. That does not mean they should not comment later on forums like this. Keeps those comments coming folks, what you have to say is important, before or after the fact. Crystal – Broker / Owner Ten Lakes Realty.

  13. Matt Allain, 1-07-08

    Since when did 4000 homes become “sustainable”. Ameya Preserve even boasts it’s lead architect has won awards for his designs in the 5000 to 10000 sq.ft. category. Very sustainable design, especially with the notion of tumbled marble and travertine imported from the other side of the globe. Reclaimed lumber used to build homes that just cut how much forest down for the oversized building footprint? How can we make people feel good about the animals they just displaced with a 2nd or third home? We’ve seen the marketing scheme time and again helping promote a “justifiable” taking of the land under the banner of environmental consciousness. I build and remodel homes for a living, so should I defend such practices? No. My training in landscape architecture and planning has educated me otherwise.
    We are all trying to make a buck…or in some cases a million bucks. We all are trying to “preserve” (pun intended) our own styles of living. Some live lightly in this world, others not so lightly. It is difficult to educate local values to those who already have a set of strong cultural values from somewhere else. Most people enjoy drinking clean water, living free of crime and stress, and having the freedom to pursue their version of happiness. In general, Montana has what many people want. The problem occurs when different cultural values collide on an issue. This is not just about Ameya Preserve. It is more about the loss of a way of life, of community, of the natural environment and our own struggles with it. Until a better model of living is ingrained into the culture, we will continue on this path with self interests leading the way.