Rich Americans discovering Montana’s many ‘gated’ communities

This ain’t your grandmother’s log cabin. There’s no cranky woodstove to stoke. No generator to spark. And the guns hanging on the glossy log walls are for decoration only.

A bottle of French wine waits on the counter of the galley kitchen, right next to the Starbucks coffee.

Gazette State Bureau

In this cabin, white linens hang in the softly lit bathroom. The mammoth bed, layered with soft fabrics and velvet calicos, faces a floor-to-ceiling stone hearth that radiates warmth even when the fire’s out.

An old-fashioned wall sign advertises a "Blue Plate Special" for 35 cents.

But nothing here costs 35 cents. In fact, this two-story cabin with its wrap-around deck didn’t exist back when meals were 35 cents.

This cabin costs more like $250 a night for invited guests only. And if you want to stay "on property" longer, if you want to return to this new Montana, you better be a multimillionaire.

This is the only gated ski and golf community in Montana. This is the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky.
New way of life

There was a time when the words "Montana log cabin" meant two rooms, homemade bunk beds and midnight trips to the outhouse. But times have changed.

In 1990, Montana had 276 houses worth $300,000 or more. By 2000, that figure had climbed to 4,735, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that was the year the Census Bureau added a new category of homes in Montana – those costing $1 million or more.

As of 2000, there were 324 million-dollar homes in Montana, a number that exceeds the total number of $300,000-plus houses in Montana in 1990.

It’s easy to see that number is rising.

People from elsewhere and everywhere – many baby boomers and new-money families – are flocking to Montana from metropolitan areas.

They want to escape busy lives and crowded resorts, said Hank Kashiwa, vice president of marketing at the Yellowstone Club.

"In general, people like Montana," Kashiwa said. "It’s quiet. The people are so nice and friendly."

But some of these Montana newcomers are bringing a bit of the city with them – their gates.
Walls, fences, gates

Gated communities, now common in more populated areas of the United States, have finally sprung up in Montana.

More gated communities dot Montana’s verdant valleys and mountain foothills. There’s the Yellowstone Club. There’s Whitefish Hills on the west side of the city. The laid-back Stock Farm outside Hamilton, with it’s semi-open gate policy, caters to more relaxed wealth.

At least two more gated communities have sprouted in Big Sky, and another is planned for Whitefish. Developers are pushing the Silver Bow Club on the Big Hole River.

Gated retreats can even be found around Seeley Lake and Nye in Stillwater County.

Theories abound as to why people want to live behind gates. Big Sky locals warming bar stools at the Corral one cold afternoon have their own ideas.

"I think people living in a gated community are doing it for a status symbol," said Vernon Bays, a Corral cook. "Or it’s paranoid people. But I don’t know what’s in their minds."

One of the country’s foremost scholars on gated communities agrees in part with Bays’ barstool philosophy.

"I believe most strongly it’s absolutely about status," said Mary Gail Snyder, professor of urban studies at the University of New Orleans and co-author of the book "Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States."

But it is also about control, Snyder said.

"The one thing the rich have always had is control," she said. "With the second-home communities, you have a very high need for control. People need to feel their house is protected when they are not there."
Neighborhood watch

In fact, the members of Montana’s various gated communities have so much control over who stays, who goes, who gets in and who they meet that not one resident could be found or contacted to comment on exactly why they bought into one of the communities.

The asphalt roads winding through these luxury compounds were empty – with the exception of contractors, servicemen and delivery drivers. At all three communities, all but one home was unoccupied.

Requests made at the Yellowstone Club and Whitefish Hills to speak with members went unanswered.

But spokesmen for the various communities invariably give the same reasons for the gates: security, privacy and exclusivity.

"What these people like about it is the protection from the general public," said Dan Buffkin of Coldwell Banker in Whitefish, the listing agent for the remaining lots in the Whitefish Hills development.

"I think the gate also makes people feel like they’re part of an exclusive community," Buffkin said. "When you say you live in Whitefish Hills, it’s more than saying you own 10 acres west of town."

The spokeswoman for the Yellowstone Club said residents like the fact that someone is keeping an eye on – and the public away from – their mountain retreats. Former Secret Service agent Bruce Bales oversees the club’s staff of more than 20 security professionals.

"They’re really here to help and to make sure the appropriate people are on property," said club spokeswoman Brandy Miller.
Movin’ on out

All this in a state where the median income falls below $30,000 a year. Some locals in Whitefish figure they’re being herded right out of their hometown.

"If you make less than $15 an hour, you can’t afford to purchase a home in Whitefish," said Mike Jopek, a local farmer and chairman of the City-County Planning Commission. "The average wage in Whitefish is $8."

Jopek said locals are being forced further out as the wealthy make offers on their property that they can’t refuse.

"There’s a lot of old timers looking to cash out," Jopek said. "There’s a part of us that thinks we’ll cash out ourselves."

But he wonders how far Whitefish is from becoming another Jackson Hole, where local workers have been pushed out and over the pass, where they are bused back into town to staff boutiques and bistros for the wealthy.

"There is definitely a proliferation of gated communities coming into the area," Jopek said. "Yet those gates don’t offer ways for the traditional and historic values to show through."

A look at 3 ‘gated’ Montana communities
The Yellowstone Club

* Initiation fee: $250,000
* Lots: $600,000 to several million dollars
* Homes: Several million dollars
* Dues: $16,000 per year
* Total residences: 864 "doors," including condominiums
* Famous members: Former vice president Dan Quayle, vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, pro golfer Annika Sorenstam, cyclist Greg LeMond.
* Attractions: Private 2,400-acre ski mountain, golf course designed by pro-golfer Tom Weiskopf, Director of Skiing Warren Miller, the filmmaker
* How to get there: Must have a net worth of $3 million and must, after expressing interest, be invited by owners Tim and Edra Blixseth.

The Stock Farm

* Initiation fee: $125,000
* Lots: $350,000 to $795,000
* Homes: Up to several million dollars
* Dues: $5,580 per year
* Total residences: 90 homesites
* Famous members: Stock Farm co-founder and financial magnate Charles Schwab, sports announcer Brent Musburger.
* Attractions: Golf course designed by pro golfer Tom Fazio, common horse barn, riding arena and trails

Whitefish Hills

* Initiation fee: None
* Lots: $200,000 to $740,000
* Home: Up to several million dollars
* Dues: $100 month for maintenance of roads, weeds, trails and common areas
* Total residences: 60 lots
* Attractions: Equestrian community with common trails

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.


Under lock and key

By ALLISON FARRELL – IR State Bureau – 1/19/04

WHITEFISH — Ron Brunk used to hop on his bike, pedal west out of town on Highway 93 and ride through timber land — privately owned but open to the public — to trails on state school trust land.

Now, thanks to the new gated community plunked down in the middle of it all, Brunk has to load his bike in his car, drive south out of town, and then backtrack just to get to the same spot.

He doesn’t bother riding there anymore.

‘‘Now that it’s Whitefish Hills, it’s truly private property,” he said. ‘‘I just stay out of there.”

Others in this small city are also hitting the walls of gated developments.

Samson Lake, Grouse Mountain and Spenser Mountain are all places where local residents can no longer walk the dog or ride a bike, said Mike Jopek, local farmer and chairman of the City-County Planning Commission.

‘‘We don’t ski at Chicken Ridge anymore,” Jopek said. ‘‘There’s a $2 million home at the top of it that we’d have to start from.”

A new breed

While popular in the country’s more urban areas, gated communities are sprouting up in Montana. Whitefish, Hamilton, Big Sky, Nye and other scenic locations are now home to these exclusive, private and near-impenetrable communities.

But as gates and fences turn locals into outsiders, those left standing on the wrong side of the wall can suffer the effects of exclusivity.

‘‘The whole community is changing,” said Brunk, who owns Glacier Cyclery. ‘‘It can’t be helped. But it would have been nice to keep public access.”

Walled developments routinely limit convenient public access to public lands, said one of the country’s authorities on gated communities.

‘‘You see this over and over again,” said Mary Gail Snyder, professor of urban studies at the University of New Orleans and co-author of the book ‘‘Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States.”

‘‘The gated community plops down at the access point, whether it’s a mountain or a shoreline, and what they’ve done is taken away the ability to go there without great inconvenience.”

Terry Thomas of Big Sky said he remembers when he used to hunt the land now gated off by The Yellowstone Club.

And locals in the Gallatin Canyon said they can no longer hop over to Ennis because a new gate blocks the mountain road snaking into Madison County. Instead, they drive more than an hour and many miles out of their way to skirt a vast area restricted by a single gate on a lone road.

More to come

Montana should expect more of the same, Snyder said.

‘‘Developers play follow the leader,” Snyder said. ‘‘Now that you have a few, you’re going to see a higher proportion of new developments with gates.”

While a proliferation of gated developments does reduce the cache of these communities, the prospect of more exclusive enclaves on the border of Montana’s wild lands doesn’t sit well with advocates of so-called ‘‘smart growth.”

‘‘This type of development is astounding to me,” said Tim Davis, executive director of the Smart Growth Coalition in Helena. ‘‘It’s a real negative extension of the way we’ve been developing.”

‘‘Building gated communities is not building a neighborhood, it’s building a subdivision,” Davis said. ‘‘And if these subdivisions continue to come in and they don’t contribute to the community, public interest decisions need to be made through neighborhood plans.”

Snyder agrees.

‘‘Local planning absolutely can prevent this,” Snyder said.

And that’s just what the folks in Whitefish are working on.

Future planning

‘‘There’s a possibility these public lands are going to be pushed further out,” said Tyler Tourville of Whitefish. ‘‘I just want to make sure they’re here today, tomorrow, next week, next year.”

Locals know development will and should happen, but they want to have a say in how it happens. And that’s why Tourville founded Flathead Fat Tires, an activist cycling group working to preserve public land access.

His group is one of many entities working with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on a plan for 13,000 acres of state school trust land ringing Whitefish.

If all goes well, Whitefish’s neighborhood plan could be used as a guide to development in other similarly stressed areas in Montana, Tourville said.

The land-use debate centers on how the state should interpret its charge to get ‘‘the highest and best” use out of state school trust lands.

In the Whitefish area, development of the old agriculture and timber lands ringing the city would deliver the greatest financial reward, Tourville said. But the ‘‘best use” of these school trust lands is a matter of interpretation, he added.

In concert with state officials and other stakeholders, the group is developing this neighborhood plan to figure how, where and how much to develop on these lands, which often provide convenient access to wild areas.

‘‘You can’t say development is not going to happen,” Tourville said. ‘‘But you need to plan ahead.”

It’s planning like this that will prevent Whitefish and other Montana hot spots from careening into another Jackson Hole, Jopek said.

‘‘I tend to look at it as tremendous opportunity,” he said. ‘‘Right now is the time for choosing what type of community Whitefish will be.”

Whitefish’s neighborhood plan is expected to be finished in May.

‘‘Change is difficult,” Jopek said. ‘‘You lose that home town feel, that charm. But it doesn’t come down to when you’re going to grow or if you’re going to grow. It really comes down to how do you grow.”


New, rich residents build Montana

Gazette State Bureau

WHITEFISH – It’s hard to believe that a city of 5,000 in northwest Montana recently raised enough private money for a library, an ice rink and an aquatic center.

It’s even harder for some to believe that the city of Whitefish has seen more than $146 million in construction over the past three years.

But the cash taps have opened since wealthy people from elsewhere began moving to town, local officials said.

"That’s all come from private dollars," said Mike Jopek, local farmer and chairman of the City-County Planning Commission. "There’s a very generous donor base in Whitefish."

And this kind of money is flowing all over Montana.

In the Bitterroot Valley, members of the 2,600-acre gated Stock Farm community have donated almost $500,000 to the Greater Ravalli Foundation.

"This is really geared towards children in Ravalli County," said Stock Farm general manager Matt Guzik, who serves as one of the foundation’s two executive directors. His staff members donate the time and energy needed to keep the two-year old foundation up and running.

In 2002, the foundation distributed $75,000 among the county’s school districts and now, the foundation is seeking applicants for five college scholarships. The scholarships will provide recipients $4,000 a year for four years to attend a state college or university, Guzik added.

The foundation has also given $20,000 to a local program that provides winter supplies to families in need, and has helped the Kiwanis club with their Christmas dinners.

Down in Big Sky, the Ophir School – with its 112 students and six full-time teachers – has received $269,000 since 2001 from The Yellowstone Club’s Dream Catcher Foundation.

In fact, the club’s foundation is the Ophir School’s largest donor, school officials said.

The money from the Yellowstone Club was used to seed an endowment fund that pays for additional professional development for the school’s teachers, said Ophir School Superintendent Linda Hunt Brown said

"We have received multiple gifts from them," Brown said. "We wouldn’t have even gotten started without that."

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.


Club homes off limits to average citizens

By ALLISON FARRELL – IR State Bureau – 1/19/04

BIG SKY — The only time Vernon Bays spent at Big Sky resort was when he worked on the line in one its kitchens.

And the way he figures it, the only way he’ll ever get back to one of Montana’s posh communities is through the service entrance.

Bays has spent the last decade of his life in Big Sky and has seen the resorts, one after another, march up the road towards Lone Peak. And now he’s seeing exclusive gated communities like The Yellowstone Club piggy-back on up.

‘‘I’ve never been up to The Yellowstone Club and I probably never will be,” Bays said one cold winter day after he got off work at The Corral bar and restaurant in Big Sky. ‘‘They’re excluding pretty much the working man from getting up there.”

Well, some working men make it there — those working men who are worth at least $3 million, those who are willing to pay a $250,000 initiation fee, those who are able to foot the $16,000 annual dues, those who are able to throw down hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars for a condo or custom-built home.

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Some others make it through the gates, too. But they’re usually driving cement mixers, hauling water heaters or making a delivery.

Ask Terry Thomas of Big Sky. He’s installed numerous radiant heating and air conditioning systems in some of the club members’ homes. Or ask his friend Donny Rigel. He’s a concrete contractor who has poured some up at The Yellowstone Club.

‘‘I know for a fact that the day the last house is built, that will be the last day an average Joe gets in there,” Rigel said.

Unless, of course, someone breaks in, he added wryly.

But locals know they would have a hard time being local if tourists didn’t fly in, buy in and stay.

‘‘If tourists didn’t come here, I wouldn’t have a job,” Bays said. ‘‘They’re a completely different world from the locals, but I cater to the tourists.”

And Thomas, who contracts at The Yellowstone Club and beyond, said he thinks the same of the homes up the hill as he does of everyone else’s.

‘‘To me, it’s just another job,” Thomas said. ‘‘All rich people ain’t jerks.”

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