North Shore Ranch owners want to renege on easement

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An aerial view of the north shore area of Flathead Lake near Somers.

The owners of the North Shore Ranch on Flathead Lake near Somers have asked Flathead County commissioners to remove a requirement from a 2010 lawsuit settlement that requires the owners to put a conservation easement on a portion of the 367-acre property.

Keith D. Simon, the managing member of Kleinhans Farms Estates LLC, wrote a letter to Commissioner Pam Holmquist earlier this month, asking the county to release the conservation easement requirement so the property can be sold and the developers can “recoup at least a portion” of their investment.

Simon and Sean Averill, his partner in Kleinhans Farms, sued the county after the commissioners in 2008 rejected their plans for a subdivision on the shoreline property, considered one of the last open tracts of land on the north end of Flathead Lake. Then-commissioners Joe Brenneman and Gary Hall voted against the subdivision citing concerns over water quality and wildlife habitat in the shoreline area.

The county lost the lawsuit and had to pay the developers $1 million over a two-year period. An amendment to the 2010 settlement was a condition to either place the conservation easement on 150 acres of the property or reimburse the county for the value of that easement, stated in the settlement agreement as $600,000.

“The purpose of the easement shall be for public access limited to foot traffic for walking, bird watching and similar sightseeing activity, and those activities consistent with the purposes of the Flathead Waterfowl Production Area,” the agreement stated.

Shortly after the settlement was finalized, the Flathead Land Trust attempted to reach an agreement with the developers to buy the North Shore Ranch, but the trust’s proposed price fell short of the developers’ expectation.

The preliminary plat for North Shore Ranch recently expired. The commissioners had approved two two-year extensions.

Simon’s letter to the commissioners indicates the developers don’t want to be held to the easement requirement.

“The agreement to place the conservation of record against the property and the payment associated with its release was based upon the understanding that a final plat would be recorded and the development would move forward as originally intended,” Simon stated. “Since the withdrawal of the preliminary plat will preclude development of the property, the conservation easement should be released to allow the property to be returned to its original condition so that a sale can be consummated at a fair value.”

The commissioners have not publicly discussed the developers’ proposal but had a meeting this week with their attorneys.

“I expect the settlement agreement to be followed,” Commissioner Phil Mitchell told the Daily Inter Lake on Thursday. If the developers don’t want to secure the conservation easement, they need to pay the county the agreed-upon $600,000, he added.

Ryan Hunter, a land protection specialist with the Flathead Land Trust, said the organization is still interested in preserving the shoreline property.

“We remain interested in conserving the land,” Hunter said. “We are always open to talking to the owners.”

Kleinhans Farms Estates LLC put the property up for sale a few years ago for $8.75 million, and in 2015 dropped the price to $7.9 million. The property still had plat approval at that time and was being marketed as one of the last large acreages for housing development near Flathead Lake.

Initial development plans outlined in the now-defunct preliminary plat included 78 single-family homes, 143 condominiums, a 60-person assisted living unit, two commercial sites and two storage-unit lots.

According to PureWest Real Estate’s online listings, the North Shore Ranch currently is listed for sale for $7.28 million.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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