“We thought we were moving to the country. To farmland.”
Those words, spoken by Kathy Matranga at a recent Ravalli County Planning Board meeting, speak volumes about the pressure on land development in western Montana. Matranga spoke in opposition to the proposed Sapphire Heights subdivision that would bring 12 new homes into an area largely surrounded by ranches in the Bitterroot Valley. Matranga was not alone in her opposition.
During two evenings of public meetings, dozens of area residents expressed their concern and outrage over water quality and traffic and the loss of habitat and agricultural heritage. Some speakers came to tears. Matranga herself pointed to water usage and the proximity of future septic fields as her primary concerns.
Matranga also stated that she is newly arrived from rural California and is currently building her own home on a 10-acre parcel adjacent to the proposed subdivision.
“[In California] I had forest around me, I had wildlife around me, and I don’t think I’m going to have that anymore,” she said. “So, a lot of money spent to live somewhere where it’s going to be gone.”
The proposed subdivision will occupy land that has been held by the Foley family since the 1920s. In fact, much of the surrounding agricultural land has been in production for generations and creates a tapestry of largely open space adjoining the state’s 2,300-acre Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area and Forest Service land beyond. Many residents maintain that the entire area is a critical wildlife corridor for elk and other species. Several residents have placed conservation easements on their land to provide additional space for the elk herds and to keep development at bay.
Still, with a high demand for housing and a flood of new residents to Montana, areas like Ravalli County, whose voters have rejected previous county-wide zoning efforts, are primed for development.
Steven Foley, one of three brothers who owns the land and lives in Washington state, said he understands that people are disappointed to see development. He feels the same.
“But we’re not there,” he said. “We have our own places distant, and it’s our inheritance that’s tied up. It’s not our home anymore. The barn burned down, and it’s a different place. It’s a different valley.”
Foley said the property was taking an “inordinate amount of time” for he and his brothers to manage, and that agricultural prices have made it economically infeasible to operate. Still, he said, the land was never put up for sale, and it was developers who approached the brothers.
“We were much impressed with the professional way they were going to develop it,” Foley said. “In our opinion, the land is going to be developed with houses that will enhance the value of the property around [it]. That’s the only way we would agree to develop it.”
Though the names of the developers do not appear on the subdivision proposal, Gary Chilcott, a multigeneration native of the Bitterroot (and brother of County Commissioner Greg Chilcott) identified himself as the developer during the planning board meeting. In 2020, Gary Chilcott used the family-transfer provision of the Montana Subdivision and Platting Act to create eight new parcels without subdivision review. Those new parcels would benefit from road access to Sapphire Heights and, some residents worry, are primed for further development.
Andy Maki, a longtime rancher whose property is nearby, suggested that development won’t stop with Chilcott’s property and Sapphire Heights. He pointed out that the Foley brothers also own an additional 80 acres immediately north of the Chilcott parcels.
“He was very forthright,” Maki said about a conversation he had with Gary Chilcott. “We were at the site visit, and he said they were building a road and basically their plan is to split the cost between he and the Foleys. He told me the road would cost about one million bucks to get from there to there.” Maki pointed to a map, indicating where the road would pass between the two subdivisions, and how close it would come to the additional 80 acres to the north.
“The logical conclusion is that they’re going to develop that, too,” he said. “What this entire project is going to eventually entail is, by my estimate, 30 lots on 280 acres.”
Gary Chilcott did not return a request for a comment for this story.
Foley, in an interview with Montana Free Press, denied he has intentions beyond the proposed subdivision. “I don’t have any designs on any part of it,” he said.
Ultimately, the community will continue to grapple with what development could mean for the agricultural heritage of the area. Foley insists that before he signed a purchase agreement with Gary Chilcott, he wanted to be sure that no member of the remaining Foley family in Montana, nor any adjacent ranching family, would be able to purchase the land from him and his brothers.
“As distant family, we wanted to give everybody a chance.” Foley said. “But why would we be burdened with the extra work that it takes, and the cost of maintenance?” He added that his parents, who built the ranch, never intended it to be held by the family forever.
Some of the Foley family, however, does remain nearby. Christine Foley Highland, a niece of the Foley brothers, lives in nearby Darby, where she ranches with her husband. She gave an impassioned speech at the planning board meeting, describing the tenacity of her widowed mother, who continued to work the ranch until the age of 79, despite not being an owner.
“I researched every possible avenue I could to try to purchase this property,” Highland said.
But “competing against developers and these ‘Yellowstone’ dreamers, it’s impossible,” she added, referring to the TV series that has attracted many newcomers to Montana. “I hate what’s happening, but I could not do anything about it.”
During the planning board meeting, Maki stood to make his own comments in opposition to the proposed subdivision. His remarks focused mainly on water, which is a primary source of concern for many who maintain that the area can’t sustain the addition of multiple housing units. Before he spoke, however, Maki made his way across the room to shake hands with Jim Foley, one of the brothers who submitted the subdivision proposal.
“We’re on speaking terms,” Maki said later while walking his land. “Our families are close.”
Maki and his own brother grew up in the area and shared family stories of years ago when the patriarch of the Foley family, John, worked as a horseback ditch rider along the Bitterroot’s main irrigation canal. He said it’s ironic how Hollywood portrays Montana and how that fame has turned into a pinch for Montana lands.
“If you just wrote a movie about our two families and our two ranches,” he said, “you’d have seasons and seasons.”
Maki knows, just like his future neighbor Kathy Matranga knows, that people are drawn to Montana’s natural and agricultural vistas.
“I don’t see ‘Yellowstone’ shooting in [the] suburbs very much. They’re all dressing up like cowboys. I know real cowboys,” Maki says. “Johnny Foley was a real cowboy. So we got real cowboys, and we’re going to replace them with people from California dressing like cowboys? I just don’t understand that rationale.”
The Ravalli County planning board voted to delay its deliberations on the Sapphire Heights proposal until July 14, giving the consultants and developers time to address concerns voiced by the public and board members. Ultimately, the proposal will be decided by the Ravalli County commissioners. It is expected that Commissioner Greg Chilcott will recuse himself from voting on his brother’s project, which will leave the decision to the two other commissioners. But, as subdivisions continue to spread throughout the Bitterroot Valley, Maki can see that his family’s way of life is being loved to death.
“I look at a lot of these subdivisions — it’s just a quick money grab and it affects all of us. The Foley place is worth a lot of money because it’s next to our place, which is open. Our place is worth a lot of money because it’s next to the Foley’s [place], which is open. There’s a certain kind of reciprocity there.
“Imagine if I’ve got 30 lots on my fence line, and they’re all mowing their lawns and taking my irrigation water and putting up three-foot fences so the wildlife can cross but it’s not going to keep my cows out.” Maki says. “Is that an equal dynamic anymore?
“It looks to me like I’m the golf course, and they’re selling lots around me.”
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