- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. (AP) - How does a town expand when it’s surrounded by federal land?

West Yellowstone city officials are facing that very question as they contemplate spending more than $1.4 million to acquire 80 acres of Custer Gallatin National Forest land adjacent to the community, which is located about 90 miles south of Bozeman.

“We’re landlocked here,” said Brad Schmier, West Yellowstone mayor. “There’s not any private land around the town that could become part of the town.”

“West Yellowstone is entirely surrounded by Yellowstone Park and National Forest System land,” said Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan, forest information officer.

So for the Gallatin County town to add housing, which has been in short supply for its many seasonal workers that serve national park visitors, acquiring land from the forest is about the easiest way to expand.

The town of about 1,300 people is squeezed together on just over 500 acres of land that abuts Yellowstone National Park’s West Entrance. The park annually hosts an average of about 3 million visitors, the majority of which pass through the West Entrance. So the town’s main business is catering to those hordes of tourists by offering hotel rooms, restaurants, a variety of gift shops and other services.

Following an appraisal, the forest has offered its property exclusively to the town at a price of about $19,000 an acre for 75 acres. The other five acres wasn’t included in the appraisal since it’s already encumbered by special use permits and easements.

“We look at it as a public benefit to the community and the viability of that town,” Leuschen-Lonergan told The Billings Gazette reports (https://bit.ly/1cWIpmZ).

The property is on the west side of town and includes the old airport. The flat land, some of it open and some of it forested with lodgepole pine trees, plays host to the annual snowmobile expo races and is also used by the town’s street department as a place to dump snow. A hazardous materials survey of the property gave the land a clean bill of health.

For the appraisal to remain valid, the Forest Service needs a buy-sell agreement signed within a year, forcing West Yellowstone residents to come up with a financing plan if they want to move ahead.

“We have looked at the winter or spring of 2016 for (the agreement) to be completed,” Leuschen-Lonergan said.

The land can be split and purchased in two phases, but West Yellowstone has to find its own financing - the Forest Service won’t owner-finance the purchase. So the specific details of the buy-sell agreement have yet to be negotiated.

Schmier said town officials are waiting to hear back from financial organizations it has approached about funding the purchase, noting that municipalities have some options that a nongovernmental land buyer would not. He added that the town council plans to hold a public meeting in the future, but not until it has answers to what will probably be the two main questions: How will the town pay for the purchase? And, will it raise residents’ taxes?

Congress authorized sale of the land as part of its 1998 Gallatin Land Consolidation Act. The act was passed as a way to provide “for the exchange of land and other assets including certain timber harvest rights . for inclusion in the Gallatin National Forest.”

“A rider within the act gives the Forest Service additional authority to directly sell to the town,” Leuschen-Lonergan said. “This opportunity is on the table because of that legislation. That offer won’t always be on the table.”

Schmier said the town shouldn’t have any trouble meeting the Forest Service’s timeline. Beyond the purchase, he said West Yellowstone officials haven’t yet discussed any details about how the property would be sold by the town to developers.

“Our first step is let’s get it bought, let’s get it secured and go from there,” he said.

Then the town can figure out the details and guidelines for how the property should be developed.

“Obviously, the workforce housing will be up there,” he said. “But we’re not alone in that respect. There are a lot of resort areas with the same problem.”

Sitting on property that’s more than 6,660 feet above sea level, the climate is typically cool with long winters. Prior to the popularity of snowmobiling, the town pretty much closed in the winter with businesses shuttering their windows and doors. But once it became the self-described snowmobile capital of the world in the 1970s, that changed.

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