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Church Universal and Triumphant Offers Land for Sale

Bozeman Chronicle/May 20, 1998
By Scott Mcmillion

LIVINGSTON -- The Church Universal and Triumphant is offering to sell 3,000 acres of prime Paradise Valley property potentially worth millions of dollars and a trailer park where dozens of church members live, church spokesman Chris Kelley said Tuesday.

The ranch land is part of the church's North Ranch, part of its Royal Teton Ranch holdings, and lies in the Trail Creek area about 12 miles south of here.

The 3,000 acres will be available in one block or in several parcels of 600 acres to 800 acres, Kelley said. Most of it is irrigated cropland, flat, and within easy access to U.S. Highway 89, giving it prime development potential.

"This is not a fire sale," he said of the ranchland offerings. "It's intrinsically part of our business plan. We're putting this land up for sale to help grow and develop our organization."

He said the New Age church has no plans to leave the area. Its international headquarters are at Corwin Springs, on the church's south ranch, which abuts Yellowstone National Park.

The Golden Age Village trailer park also is for sale, Kelley said. It sits on 21 acres and includes 49 spaces, a combination chapel/community center and another building that is used for a private school run by a church member. The church is the landlord for the residents there, Kelley said, and the property is surrounded by the Glastonbury subdivision near Emigrant.

The church was considering selling that property a couple of months ago, Kelley said, "and entertained a few proposals."

A group of residents now is considering forming a trust to buy and manage the park, Kelley said.

The church tried operating the north ranch with staff members for several years after it bought the property in 1983 but has been leasing most of the property to agricultural operators in recent years.

"It was never really an integral part of our vision of the future," Kelley said Tuesday.

The potential sales come as part of the downsizing and "reengineering" the church announced in 1996.

It has eliminated most of the 600 jobs church staffers once held in this area, has opened the formerly church-members-only Glastonbury subdivision to the general public, sold a huge variety of equipment and shut down a number of its businesses. Its major emphasis now is on outreach to members in other areas, church leaders say.

It also is negotiating final details of a proposed sale to the U.S. Forest Service and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation of more than half of the 12,000-acre south ranch. That deal would sell to the public or put conservation easements upon 7,850 acres of that wildlife rich ranch. The church would gain approximately $13 million if that deal goes through.

Money has been set aside for the deal but consummation has been delayed by political wrangling in Washington, D.C., and the ironing out of details here in Montana.

Delays in that deal are part of the reason for selling part of the 10,000-acre north ranch, Kelley said.

"It hasn't been moving as quickly as we imagined," he said.

Kelley said there isn't yet a specific asking price for either property but Livingston real estate broker Ernie Meador said the north ranch land is easily worth millions.

"It's hugely developable," he said. "You've got views and you've got easy access to town."

Cut into small parcels it probably would be worth $6,000 to $8,000 per acre or more, depending on the configuration, he said.

Church leaders and some members praise the changes within the church, which church president Gilbert Clairbeault has said are necessary efficiencies if it is to survive and spread its eclectic religious message known as "the teachings."

Some former members are bitter, however. They say they donated heavily to pay for the properties and were promised a religious community in return. Some have threatened to sue, maintaining they are part owners of the land.

Kelley said buying the north ranch has been good for the church.

"It turned out to be a pretty positive use of the members' money," he said. "It was a pretty good investment."

The North Ranch was purchased in 1983, when land prices were a fraction of what they are today.

Church members tried to be self-sustaining in agriculture, a venture church vice president Murray Steinman has called a "very expensive experiment," and a variety of crops were tried on the North Ranch.

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