Despite the fact that his 3,000-acre family ranch near Florence was recently sold at a Sheriff’s auction, Tom Maclay told members of the Hamilton Rotary Club last week that he hopes to redeem the ranch and move forward with his plans to build a world class destination ski resort and residential development on the land.
Maclay’s plans for the all-season Bitterroot Resort include using 11,000 acres of national forest land adjoining his property for ski runs. The runs were planned to start on Lolo Peak and descend through Lolo and Bitterroot National Forest lands to the ranch land below. But the proposal got bogged down in the Forest Service’s permitting process. Officials from the Lolo National Forest rejected the permit application because it conflicted with the Lolo Forest Plans for the area and had proposed ski trails through a natural research area designated to be undisturbed in perpetuity. The permit also met stiff resistance from a citizen’s group determined to keep Lolo Peak undeveloped.
Maclay had financed the project by mortgaging the ranch and family home. He believed enough money had been set aside to get him through the permitting process which was expected to take two to three years. When it bogged down he ran into financial trouble. His creditor, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, finally ran out of patience and foreclosed on the property in 2009. The property was sold at a sheriff’s auction a few weeks ago and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Asset Holdings purchased the land and house for $22.5 million. Maclay has a year, under state law, to redeem the property, and that’s his plan.
Forest officials say the original rejection of his permit application was due primarily to the lack of sufficient information to show the financial capability for the project, one of the requirements in the permit “screening” process.
Maclay claims now that the permitting process was delayed unfairly due to a conflict of interest within the Forest Service. That conflict, he claims, has to do with the personal interests of the Recreation Specialist involved in assessing the area for recreational potential. That person, according to Maclay, purchased a parcel of land adjoining his ranch. He claims that dealing with the Forest Service over a landslide on an access road in the area diverted his attention and also delayed the project.
Maclay first announced his plans for the Bitterroot Resort development in 2005. Following the initial rejection of his permit request to use forest land, he reduced his project to simply using the Lolo forest for mountain bike trails and some glade skiing on the Bitterroot forest above the ranch.
Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King said that Maclay’s permit request failed to provide information required about the financial capability of the project. She said the ball has been in Maclay’s court since then but no further information has been submitted.
Maclay says that the new permit information he plans to submit very soon is based on his original submission for a full development, but includes a change in design to avoid the Natural Research Study Area that was identified as a problem in the first go round. He refused to say if plans still involve using the summit of Lolo Peak or not. He said that it was not relevant to the initial permitting process. He is also keeping mum about his plans for financing the project other than to say that he is currently looking for investors.
Stevensville Ranger District Supervisor Dan Ritter said that any proposal submitted would have to be examined in terms of “any reasonably foreseeable action” which would probably mean taking a look at potential effects on Lolo Peak. He said that as of Monday no new permitting application information had been submitted.
“If he submits it, we will consider it,” said Ritter, “but it will have to go through the same two-step screening process which requires information about financial capability.”
Maclay insists that his plan for a world class destination ski resort is still a good one. He touts the potential economic benefits of the development to the Bitterroot community and the entire region.