Group releases draft land use plan for former Frenchtown mill site

2013-03-10T18:05:00Z 2013-03-10T23:59:11Z Group releases draft land use plan for former Frenchtown mill siteKim Briggeman Missoulian The Billings Gazette
March 10, 2013 6:05 pm  • 

FRENCHTOWN – M2Green Redevelopment’s early vision of the former Smurfit-Stone mill site in Frenchtown includes some 1,500 acres of open space, two river access sites and, potentially, more than 500 acres of housing developments.

There also will be a commercial/industrial core where the work gets done, farmland on the edges – and lots of flexibility.

“You’ve got to have a first draft,” said Ray Stillwell, member/manager of the ownership group that released a preliminary land use plan for the Frenchtown Technology and Industrial Center on Friday. “This is simply a starting point for what we view as the potential synergies and uses of the property.”

There’s a lot of land – still more than 3,000 acres after the recent sale of 158 acres on the west end to Dick Lucier’s neighboring ranch. Roughly one-tenth of the remainder near the Clark Fork River will likely be the focus of an Environmental Protection Agency cleanup. (See related story.)

The plan highlights three “study” areas: commercial/industrial, agricultural and residential, and open space.

The smallest, perhaps 300 acres, is near the main entrance and deemed most suitable for commercial and industrial use. It’s close to rail and interstate highway access, as well as to existing infrastructure left from the old paper mill that closed down in 2010 after more than 50 years in operation.

Next come the roughly 1,200 acres on three sides of the industrial core along Mullan Road. Now mostly farmland, the eight chunks are designated in the draft plan as agricultural and/or residential.

“If that market could actually be generated for residential use, there could certainly be a subdivision or a condo-type process,” Stillwell said. “I think we could look at a variety of things, but it’s somewhat market-driven and you just have to see what having the river access would accomplish.”

The plan designates two Clark Fork River access points and overlooks, one on each end of the site. They are part of a sprawling green space – on the map and potentially otherwise – that occupies more than half the mill site.

That space would include restored habitat overlooks, wetlands, a multi-use trail system, interpretive sites and sheltered benches. It would entail opening to the public a vast acreage never before accessible, much of it inextricably tied to the holding and sludge ponds that will be the focus of the environmental cleanup.

“That’s the concept,” Stillwell said. “How we get from where we are today to that point, I don’t know. There may be quite a few folks who would have input on how to accomplish that purpose.”

He said that while some of the areas of potential contamination fall within the green area, “that doesn’t mean it can’t be cleaned up and can’t be utilized in this fashion.”

Likewise, if an industry comes along and needs more space than assigned on the land use plan, “we may encroach over into that green area in order to satisfy their requirements for space,” Stillwell said.

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Stillwell was in town last week to discuss the draft plan with the Clark Fork Coalition and County Commissioner Jean Curtiss among others.

Chris Brick, science director for the Clark Fork Coalition, said it “seems good at first blush, and clearly it will be refined over the time.”

“We appreciate that the floodplain area would remain undeveloped, and we hope that in the future we can reclaim some of that to a more natural state than it is now,” Brick said.

Stillwell said in a news release it’s long been a vision of his and M2Green partner Mark Spizzo “that areas of this beautiful property might be used by the community and area wildlife, while at the same time we are able to restore jobs lost when Smurfit-Stone closed its doors.”

M2Green isn’t obliged to share those visions with the community, a point made by both Brick and Pat O’Herren, director of Missoula County’s new Community and Planning Services department.

“I’m glad they’re showing us what they’re thinking,” Brick said. “I appreciate (Stillwell’s) willingness to present this to the public.”

“It’s always encouraging when a landowner expresses a desire to look at the long-term development potential of their land and the health of the community,” O’Herren said. “M2Green appears to be ready to pursue remediation and redevelopment on the site, and that’s very encouraging.”

Stillwell said good stewardship of the land was integral in formulating the plan, which was prepared by Bernardo-ills Architects of Spokane.

“It’s such a nice large piece of property it’s really neat to be able to do the variety of things that we have on this, and we hope that we can do especially those really neat things along the river. It’s really beautiful there,” he said.

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