The “Code of the West” was first chronicled by the western novelist, Zane Grey. Men and women who settled the western frontier were bound by an unwritten code of conduct. In keeping with that spirit, we offer this information to help people who have chosen to build and/or live in the unincorporated areas of Ravalli and Missoula Counties.
Welcome to Montana! Plan on living in a rural area?
Life in the country is rich and rewarding, treasured by both residents who have been here for generations, and those who have recently moved here. It’s important that new property owners and homeowners know that life in “non-urban” parts of the County is different from life in the town. The County government cannot provide the same level of service that city and town governments provide. The information included in this Bitterroot Valley and Missoula County version of “The Code of the West” is designed to help you make an educated and informed decision as you consider purchasing or developing land in the unincorporated areas of the Valley.
What kind of ACCESS is available outside of town?
The fact that you can drive to your property does not necessarily guarantee that you, your guests, or an emergency service vehicle (the Sheriff, an ambulance, a fire truck) can get there easily, or during all seasons. Please consider:
- Response times for emergency services cannot be guaranteed.
- There can be problems with the legal aspects of access, especially if you have access across someone else’s property. Make sure you have legal easements if you need them (i.e. deeded, not just verbal). You may want to get legal advice if you have questions regarding your own access to a County road or federal highway.
- Ravalli County maintains hundreds of miles of roads, but many private properties are served by private roads, which are not County maintained. Some roads that have been used for many years by the public aren’t maintained by the County (no snow plowing, grading in the summer, or repair of damages resulting from natural disasters.) Make sure you know what kind of maintenance is available and who pays for it.
- Many large construction vehicles cannot navigate small, narrow, and primitive roads. If you plan to build, check out construction access. Private driveways should be wide and sturdy enough to support either emergency or construction vehicles.
- If your driveway or private road accesses a County road, you may need an Approach Permit. Call the Ravalli County Road Dept. (406-363-2733), or Missoula County Road Dept (406- 258-4753.) to find out. If your access is directly onto a State highway, you will need to check with the Montana Hwy Department of Transportation about getting a Highway Access Permit.
- In general, school buses travel only on a county, state, or federal roads and not on subdivision roads. In some outlying areas, school bus transportation is not provided at all. Call the Administration Office of the School District in which your children will be attending school to find out the school bus boarding area closest to your property.
- In extreme weather, some roads may become impassable. You may need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, snow tires and/or chains, and perhaps even another mode of transportation to travel during those circumstances.
- Gravel roads generate dust. If you mind that, you may not want to be in an area that is accessible only by gravel roads, and for which no paving is planned. If you have a question about whether roads are scheduled for improvement, check with the subdivision property owners’ association, or with the Ravalli County Road Department.
- Unpaved roads are not always smooth and are often slippery when they are wet. You may experience an increase in vehicle maintenance costs when you regularly travel on rural county roads.
- Newspaper, parcel and overnight package delivery, and U.S. mail delivery may not always be available to rural areas. Check with the agencies that provide these services before assuming you can get delivery.
- It may be more expensive and time-consuming to build a rural residence due to delivery fees and the time required for inspectors to reach your site.
How About Sewer, Water, Electricity, Telephone, Cable T.V., and Natural Gas?
The utilities that you may be used to having when you live in a town or city may not be available in rural areas. Please think about these situations:
- The availability of telephone communication can be delayed, particularly in the more remote areas of the County. Check with the local telephone service provider to find out what lines and services are available to you. Verizon has added many cell towers in the last few years, the Bitterroot Valley and Missoula generally have good service in many areas. In the Seeley area, AT&T tends to be the better provider.
- Internet Connection Has gotten much better over the last 5 years! A few companies in town have created a line of sight paths and can now bring high speed to remote areas. In areas where a line of sight is not possible, you may need to use satellite internet. If high-speed internet is a need, be sure to let your agent know from the beginning.
- If central or regional sewage treatment is available to your property, find out who provides the service, and what the costs are to hook into it, and to maintain it.
- If city wastewater treatment is not available, you will be using, or have to have installed, an individual sewage disposal system (ISDS). If there is an existing individual system, have the septic tank pumped and inspected by reliable service, and call the Ravalli County Environmental Health Office to get information about obtaining a permit or an inspection (406-375-6268). In Missoula (406-258-4755)
- Be sure you know what water rights are available with your property: Is there a well? A pumped well has water rights. is there live water, such as a ditch, stream, pond, river, canal? You may not have rights to that water. Some water rights are shares and are included in your tax bill.
- If city water is not available to your property, find out what domestic water options are available to you. Is there a decree to a spring on or off the property? If water is provided by a well or spring located off your property, do you have an easement allowing you to access and repair it? If you have deeded water rights (for agricultural or domestic use) do you understand what you are getting? The DNRC (Department of Natural Resources) can explain what the information on your water right certificate is and if the rights have been “adjudicated” through the water court yet. You may not be able to drill a well, or have “real” access to a water supply without getting approval from the Water Court; you’ll need to know what kind of time and expense that may entail.
- Not all wells are permitted to allow watering of landscaping or livestock. Make sure that you have obtained, or are protected in the event you cannot obtain the appropriate permits from the Ravalli County Health Dept.(Sanitarians office) before you move ahead with your development plans.
- Having a well permit doesn’t guarantee that there will be water where you first dig for it; some areas of rural Ravalli County that are more than 400 feet deep. Consider those potential drilling and installation costs in your development planning.
- You may or may not own the water that runs through your property in a stream or irrigation ditch. Unless you have actually purchased water rights, the water can’t be legally taken out of the stream or ditch. Check with your attorney, or the DNRC to make sure you have, legal water rights with your property, and if they are adequate for your intentions with the property.
- Ravalli County Health Dept (Sanitarians Office), issues well permits. You can apply through their office in Hamilton (406-375-6268), or by contacting a local well driller who can complete and submit the application for you.
- Electric and natural gas service may not be available in the more remote areas of Ravalli County and Missoula County. Check with each of these service providers to make sure you have the services you want before you commit to a construction project.
- Some of your utility service lines may have to cross properties owned by other people in order for service to be extended to your property. Make sure the proper legal easements are in place to allow liens to be installed to your property.
- Electric power may not be available in single-phase and three-phase service configurations. If you have special power requirements, check with the service provider to ensure that those can be provided.
- The cost of electrical service usually includes both a fee to hook into the system (which may require extensive line installation if none exists), and a monthly charge for energy consumed. Check with the service provider about both costs in your area.
- Power outages can occur in outlying areas more often than in more developed areas. Not only can these disrupt your computer modem’s Internet connection; you won’t be able to get water from your well.
- Many rural areas of the county are not wired for cable t.v. depending upon where in the county your property is located. Satellite TV and Internet are available for rural areas.
What Can I Do On My Property?
Many issues can affect your property in addition to those concerning utilities and access. It’s important to research them before purchasing land.
- Other property owners may have easements that require you to allow construction of roads, power lines, water lines, sewer lines, and other utilities, as well as maintenance of irrigation ditches across your land, which may restrict your own development and building options. There may be easements that haven’t been recorded, but are “historic.” Title abstract and title insurance companies or an attorney can help you track this information.
- Mineral rights under the surface of their land. It’s important that you know what minerals may be located under your land and owns them. Check your deed, and if you don’t understand it, you may want to contact your attorney or the title company you are working with.
- You may be provided with a plat for your property by your Realtor, or another seller. You may wish to obtain the services of a licensed Montana surveyor to ensure the accuracy of your survey.
- Fences that separate properties may or may not be on legal boundary lines. A survey of the land is the only way to confirm the location of your property lines.
- Whether you want to construct a single-family home, a guest house, to subdivide, or open a store, your plans may require a permit, as well as a driveway access permit, an individual sewage disposal system permit, a building permit, or must meet other requirements. Check with the Planning Office to find out what you need, and when you’ll need it. If you have a septic, contact the Sanitarian’s office before adding bedrooms, bathrooms, or another building with water access.
- Many subdivisions and planned developments have covenants and design guidelines that limit the use of the property. Find out if there are covenants (either ask your Realtor or check in the Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder’s Office). Make sure that you can live with the covenants if any.
- Homeowners and property owners associations often are responsible for the maintenance of roads, utilities, and other common elements in subdivisions. Check the subdivision’s covenants to learn if an association has that responsibility; check with your Realtor (or some of your future neighbors) to learn if the association is functioning. A dysfunctional or non-existent association can cause problems for you, and even involve you in expensive litigation.
- Dues are almost always a requirement for those subdivisions that have a homeowners association. The by-laws of the association should outline how the organization operates and how dues are set, collected, and spent.
- The property that’s an open meadow today may not be forever. Check the recorded plat of your subdivision to see what uses are platted within it. In addition, check-in the Ravalli County Assessor’s Office to determine if those uses may have been changed since the plat was recorded. You can also talk with the Ravalli County Planning Department about the process that properties currently undergo for land-use change permits, and how you would be notified if changes are proposed next to you.
- You are responsible for keeping your dog on your own property. Montana law allows the shooting of dogs when they are harassing livestock or wildlife. Avoid a real tragedy and do the neighborly thing at the same time: Keep your best friend in his own yard.
You Can’t Mess With Mother Nature (and expect to get off easily)
Rural residents usually can expect to experience more challenges with the “elements” when they become unfriendly than residents who have access to municipal or district services.
- Trees are a wonderful environmental amenity, but can also endanger your home in a forest fire. The State Forest Service offers a practical list of recommendations to help you protect your home from fire as well as protect the tress from igniting if your house catches on fire. If you start a forest fire, you could be found legally responsible for paying the costs of putting it out. Helping to prevent the catastrophe before it happens benefits you as well as your neighbors and the forest.
- Steep slopes can slide in unusually wet weather. Large rocks can also roll down steep slopes and present a great danger to people and property.
- You may be required to have a geotechnical study conducted before you can obtain an individual sewage disposal system permit, a building permit, or a driveway permit. Geologic hazards such as mudslides, rockfall, avalanche and unstable slopes are common in Ravalli County. Collapsing and expansive soils can buckle concrete foundations and twist steel I-beams.
- Be cautious about placing any improvements on north-facing slopes. North facing slopes or canyons rarely see direct sunlight in the winter. Snow may accumulate there and not melt throughout the winter.
- Building designs that avoid “valleys” over outside entrances, and have roof slope direction which prevents “dumps” of snow and ice accumulations on sidewalks and garage entrances will help prevent dangerous conditions and headaches during our long winters.
- A property owner who builds his home in a ravine finds that the water that drained through the ravine now drains through his house. The topography of the land can tell you where the water will go when rain and spring runoff from snowmelt occur.
Nature can provide you with some wonderful neighbors. However, some may be of concern to you and require extra care when you build and live in a rural or remote area.
- Some subdivisions prohibit the keeping of dogs, which may harass wildlife, or require that they be confined on the property. Some limit the number of cats you may keep, and require that they be confined, to prevent the decimation of native bird populations.
- Coyotes, skunks, prairie dogs, bears, deer, raccoons, and mosquitoes (trust us) can be simply annoying, destructive, or dangerous, and you need to know how to deal with them. Some developments require that “bear-proof” trash containers be used.
- Check with your REALTOR, with your future neighbors, and read the covenants for the subdivision for specific information.
- Threatened and endangered species of wildlife may be present in certain areas. Check with the Montana Division of Wildlife about concerns related to the area in which your property is located.
- Hunting has been part of a way of life in Montana for centuries. Neighbors may allow legal hunting activities on their property. Informing yourself of areas where such activities are allowed may be important to you.
- Harsh winters can bring unexpected herds of elk and deer onto private lands. They may damage fences, pastures, and other personal property. Checking with the Division of Wildlife about how to address these potential problems before they occur will help both you and the wildlife.
Agriculture: Our Heritage and a Key To Our Future
- Montana has an “open range” law. This means if you do not want cattle, sheep, or other livestock on your property, it is your responsibility to fence them out, and not the ranchers to keep the livestock off your property.
- Agriculture is a major economic contributor to Ravalli County. If you choose to live among and next to ranching operations, you may be affected by them; you have the opportunity to help keep the ranching operation viable by learning how you can be a good neighbor to this important part of our community. You may end up stuck behind a tractor during hay season, enjoy the slowdown!
- Ranchers often work around the clock, especially during calving season in the spring and hay harvesting time in the middle to late summer. Occasionally, adjoining agricultural operations may disturb your otherwise quiet surroundings. Those times will pass.
- If you’re traveling on dirt and gravel roads adjacent to ranchlands, drive slowly and with care: An excess of dust can affect both the health of the cattle and the quality of hay in the fields. Occasionally cattle may get out on the road; avoiding hitting an animal is healthy for both you and the animal.
- Ranchers occasionally burn their ditches to keep them clean of debris, weeds, and other obstructions. This burning may bother you momentarily, but it is not a regular occurrence.
- Chemicals are one tool that may be used to control weeds and remove vegetation that impedes the flow of irrigation ditches or may be harmful to livestock. Ranchers, just as all others, must operate within the constraints of public health and safety laws that affect the use of those chemicals.
- Livestock may cause odors and noise, which are objectionable to some people. If you find them annoying, you may want to find a parcel in another area of the county.
- Livestock is occasionally moved on public roads. When you encounter a livestock drive, please pull over to the side of the road and allow the driver to pass. Or, if a rider directs you to move forward, do so slowly. The delay will cost you only a few minutes. Enjoy the scene; this is the “real west,” and is a critical part of your neighbors’ ability to make a living.
And a Few Final Thoughts
- Please take the time and effort to study the history of the Bitterroot Valley and Missoula County. This will give you an understanding and appreciation for the pioneers who tamed this land and, in many cases, spent a hundred years and four generations of a family completing what might be called our first “land-use change.” It is our hope that through this understanding, you will approach your construction and development in a thoughtful and sensitive manner, to protect our unique community, our natural resources, and our historic way of life.
- The information in this version of “The Code of the West” is not exhaustive. There likely will be issues that occur to you, or that you encounter, that are not included here. If you have questions, the agencies that are listed will try their best to give you the information you need. And remember, your REALTOR may be one of the best sources of your resources! We work with county and city officials, are aware of issues that affect home ownership and help our clients connect with tradespeople and services. Ask us for our help.