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A golfer makes a shot down a fairway on the University of Montana Golf Course in November 2012.

A group opposed to building Missoula College on the University Golf Course sent a letter to the state Monday, threatening to sue if the Montana University System moves forward with construction as planned.

Quentin Rhoades, an attorney with Sullivan, Tabaracci and Rhoades, sent the letter to the Board of Regents and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education on behalf of Advocates for Missoula’s Future.

The local group opposes locating Missoula College on the South Campus and has pushed for development at Fort Missoula west of the city. Group members threatened last year to sue if the South Campus project were approved.

“When property is donated to the state of Montana for the benefit of higher education, the Board of Regents is required to use the property for the specific purpose of the donor,” Rhoades said. “This land was given to the state for use as athletic fields for recreational use by students.”

In their letter, Advocates for Missoula’s Future says the land was acquired by the Alumni Challenge Athletic Field Corp. in 1928 to supply the university with athletic fields for student recreation.

The group argues that the state accepted the property for a price below fair market value. At the time, they believe, the exchange was made on the expressed understanding that the land would be used for student recreation.

“Because the purpose of the donation was so specific, and so carefully expressed in writing at the time the state accepted delivery of the deed, it would violate Montana law to pave over the golf course and athletic fields in favor of buildings or parking spaces as proposed for the new Missoula College development,” the letter reads.

Rhoades said the university infringed somewhat on the deed when it built student housing at the site a decade ago. In 2002, the Board of Regents approved construction of 216 units on eight acres located on the South Campus.

“They’ve used so little, I don’t view it to be substantially material to be in violation,” Rhoades said of the housing project. “But going forward, I don’t think, under that statute, a court would let them violate the original intent of the deed.”

Peggy Kuhr, vice president of integrated communications at UM, said a number of issues raised by the group in its letter have served as ongoing community discussions. Parking, traffic and other issues were to be finalized with community input once funding was officially approved by the Legislature.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 5 on Monday, a move that awards Missoula College official funding for construction. The project is estimated at roughly $37 million and has been lauded by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce as a needed job booster for western Montana.

“It’s really early for us to have any kind of response,” Kuhr said of the group’s letter. “We just received the package of information from the commissioner’s office. They’ll respond in more detail appropriately and soon.”

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The group’s letter argues that the Board of Regents must provide a detailed statement on environmental impacts, along with clear alternatives to the proposed construction plan.

The group further argues that developing the project on the South Campus would have a “huge impact on localized auto emissions.” It suggests that planners have not properly considered parking, traffic and other concerns associated with

South Campus construction.

“There is little substantive need for Missoula College to be physically located in close proximity to the UM main campus,” the group argues. “Missoula College can and should be placed on existing bare land at Fort Missoula that can be put to good use with this project.”

University officials have said the deed stipulates that the South Campus property be used for the greatest good and benefit of university students. The greatest good, they’ve contended, falls under education.

But Advocates for Missoula’s Future have argued otherwise. Rhoades called the “greatest good” a general rule. He said recreation was included as a specific rule when the state accepted the deed after the 1928 transaction.

“That’s the general rule – that the state has the right to pursue the highest and best use of that land,” Rhoades said. “But there’s a specific statute – that the regents have to use the donated property for the specific purpose of the donation (recreation).”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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