It poured rain on the day Tom Maclay's lender took back its loan on the ski resort he wanted to build on his family ranch south of Lola.
About 20 people, plus a passel of reporters, gathered on Wednesday to watch Missoula County Sheriff's Deputy Pat Turner auction the property on the Missoula County Courthouse lobby's big marble staircase. After informing everyone the minimum price was $5, and that any offer had to be cash or backed up by a bank's guarantee, he started taking bids promptly at 10 a.m.
Maclay wasn't there.
Hunting book author Susan Campbell Reneau had been working her cellphone, trying to get some big wildlife or land conservation foundation to participate. When that proved fruitless, she offered $1,000 of her own money as the opening bid.
Another man, who refused to identify himself, bid $1 million for the 3,000-acre ranch and Maclay's spacious log cabin. His offer got a "going twice" from Turner before Billings attorney Allen Karell opened his file folder.
Karell represented Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.Asset Holdings, which foreclosed on Maclay's project in 2009. He bid $22,500,543.56.
"That's not everything we're owed," Karell said. "That's what we ended up bidding."
The bid essentially forgives Met Life's own loan to Maclay, according to Missoula County civil process technician Kathy Good. That gives it title to Maclay's land, house and personal property.
However, Maclay has one year from Wednesday to redeem the loan. Maclay's spokesman, Tim Newhart, said after the sale that Maclay was still seeking new investors to restart the project.
"We live in a day and age when lenders are eager to negotiate debt," Newhart said.
"I've spoken to Tom, and he will make an announcement when we're in a position to exercise our right of redemption."
That could mean a price considerably lower than the $22.5 million Met Life bid. Maclay maintains the true value of the property is "multiples of that figure," although he would not state a specific value.
Maclay announced plans to turn his family ranch into the base area of a major ski resort in 2005, although he'd been clearing potential ski-runs as early as 2003. His goal was to win access to another 11,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in the basin above his ranch, near Lolo Peak.
But the plan quickly ran into difficulties when Lola National Forest officials ruled it didn't meet their long-range management plans for the area. They were particularly concerned about the ski area's impact on land in the middle of the basin marked as a research-natural area. That Forest Service designation is used for land set aside to encourage biological diversity, baseline ecological information, university research and natural history education.
The proposal also drew fire from Friends of Lolo Peak, a volunteer group opposed to letting Maclay develop the public land above his ranch. Group steering committee member Daphne Herling said after the sale that she remained on watch.
"Met Life isn't in the business (of land development)," Herling said. "They don't want to hold onto it. Our best-case scenario is that a conservation buyer will appear who will keep that land intact for its incredible wildlife and natural resource benefits. But whatever happens to the private land, we will continue to look at protection of that public land. We will work with the Forest Service as closely as we can to keep that public land permanently protected."
Neighboring landowner Alan Foss said he came to the auction to see Maclay receive payback for what Foss described as years of selfish behavior. He said he often clashed with Maclay over access to the Forest Service land above the ranch and maintenance of an irrigation ditch that crossed his property.
"I hate to see the ranch go," Foss said. "It's been a part of the neighborhood my whole life. I got along good with his (Tom Maclay's) dad and granddad, but he just creates a colossal mess wherever he goes."