Sour notes hit with Tippet Rise project
Bob Mendenhall concedes that he delivered gravel for the Tippet Rise Art Center under construction near Fishtail, but that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.
“People need to hear the other side of the story,” he said.
Mendenhall’s great great grandfather established a homestead on the rolling hills between Fishtail and the Stillwater River more than a century ago, and Mendenhall is uncomfortable with the amount of change Tippet Rise is bringing to the area.
His specific concerns include fire hazards, increased traffic and how road improvements are being made.
“I was run off the road while riding my 4-wheeler,” he said.
Mendenhall suggests the art center’s entrance be moved to Highway 419 near Nye, closer to pavement.
A more vocal neighbor is Diane Signoracci, an Ohio attorney who moved to the area about 10 years ago.
“It used to be very peaceful here,” she said. “If I knew this would happen, I never would have bought this place.”
In an April 20 letter sent to the Stillwater County Commissioners, Signoracci formally objected to the road construction work on South Grove Creek Road.
“Normally I’m a live-and-let-live kind of person, but they pushed me too far,” she told the News.
In her letter, Signoracci claimed construction “has chased away much of the local wildlife,” including sandhill cranes and curlews. She also referred to “reckless driving” by contractors.
“They’ve run people off the road,” she told the News. “I was walking my dog on the road and got sprayed by the dust control truck.”
Signoracci also objects to the “ugly power poles” recently installed for the art center, noting that the 3-phase line was buried once it reached the Tippet Rise property line.
Jaimie Garvin, who shares Singing Dog Ranch with Signoracci, also has written to the county commissioners about Tippet Rise. He expressed concerns about construction traffic, road dust, impacts to wildlife and frequent power disruptions.
“Tippet Rise seems to paint a pretty picture, but from our deck it’s more like a war zone,” he told the News.
Nearby neighbor Clint Teagardin expressed a more conciliatory tone, recognizing Tippet Rise’s property rights and inevitable change as the Beartooth Front draws out-of-state landowners.
He and his wife Martha Baxter had specific goals when looking for a place to buy in Montana in 1991 – some acreage and no neighbors in sight. The rural Fishtail area fit the bill.
“Something a heck of a lot worse could have happened there,” he said about Tippet Rise. “But at the end of the day, this is nothing like Ohio.”
Teagardin notes that another neighbor negatively impacted the landscape by erecting three houses atop the hills on their 80 acres.
“They never seem to be around either,” he said.
In defense of Tippet Rise, art center director Alban Bassuet points to the benefits of road improvements, payments to contractors and workers that help the local economy, and the philanthropic donations by the Tippet Rise Foundation and Cathy and Peter Halstead, the sole trustees.
“We are the second largest charitable donor in the state of Montana,” he said.
Bassuet said the art center’s main entrance cannot be relocated closer to Nye because of steep terrain posing hazards during icy winter days. He noted that South Grove Creek Road is receiving dust control measures for the very first time, and at considerable expense.
“All drivers working at Tippet Rise are advised not to drive any faster than 20 to 25 miles per hour when coming to work,” he said, adding that construction work will near completion in September.
Efforts are being made to keep all buildings at the art center out of sight, including a utility building that will be hidden behind a berm and covered with sod. He noted that one of Tippet Rise’s neighbors can see the art center “because they chose to build on a hill.”
In addition to the economic benefits during construction, Bassuet pointed to all the conservation efforts at Tippet Rise – new streams created and improvements to winter range for elk herds.
“Plans are also being made for shuttle buses to bring people in for performances,” he said.
As for the power line, Bassuet said the 1940-era power poles needed replacement, which was done at Tippet Rise’s expense. One pole on their property was blown down by the wind in February, he said.
“The neighbors will benefit from a much safer power line,” he said.
Signoracci, however, is not satisfied. She said she plans to put on her own “counter concert” if she hears music from Tippet Rise – singing her own lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi” over a loudspeaker.
Conservation easement protects art center land
A conservation easement granted to the Montana Land Reliance is in place to protect open space and ecological values on 3,040 acres of the 11,300 acres owned by Tippet Rise LLC.
The Albert Johnson Land Company initially granted the easement to the Montana Land Reliance on Dec. 4, 1989 to protect “significant ecological, scenic and aesthetic values and open space values” under Montana’s Open Space Land and Voluntary Easement Act.
The easement noted that “important habitat on the property for deer, trout and waterfowl … are of great importance to the grantor and to the people of the state of Montana.” The grantor was Isabelle Johnson, president of the Albert Johnson Land Company. She died in 1992.
The easement, which runs with the title and binds future owners, allows agriculture that does not pollute or degrade surface waters, hunting and fishing that is not detrimental, and new buildings for agriculture, ranching, guest ranching, educational or research purposes.
As restated and amended on Aug. 26, 2010, the easement added four parcels – the Johnson family’s Home Place, the Hoffman residence site on Upper Grove Creek, the McCadden-Huard site, and the Lower Grove Creek site.
The easement allows additional residences on the Home Place, McCadden-Huard and Lower Grove Creek parcels, but only one of the four parcels can be used for guest ranching or educational and research purposes.
The grantors for the 2010 document were the Johnson Family Foundation and the Montana State University Foundation. The property was sold to Tippet Rise on Dec. 15, 2010.
According to Renee Coppock, a Billings attorney representing Tippet Rise, the conservation easement held by the Montana Land Reliance covers three parcels in addition to those purchased by Tippet Rise.
There is no limit under the easement to the number or type of buildings that can be built for educational or research purposes, but they must be clustered together in one 10-acre building envelope, Coppock said.
“If MSU had retained the property, it could have elected to build a research facility of any size, with any number of rooms or labs,” she said.
There also is no limit on the size of the buildings.
“A structure could have been built that is three or four stories tall,” she said.
The easement also allows Tippet Rise to bring in power and build roads, construct a building for agricultural purposes on a separate 10-acre envelope, and build one new residence on another 5-acre envelope.
“In order to ensure there are no violations of the easement, Tippet Rise has consulted with the Montana Land Reliance during the entire process, with meetings on site every three months, on average, when an annual evaluation is all that is required,” Coppock said.