Ritters backing out of partnership killed $15M sale, Milk River Ranch owners say
A Hill County family that sold land to the state in a controversial transaction has answered a lawsuit claiming they also failed to return $200,000 a neighbor invested in a joint sale.
The answer to the lawsuit also claims the plaintiff killed a deal worth $15.8 million and asks the court to award damages to the defendant.
Ross Ritter of Judith Basin County, formerly of Rudyard, filed the lawsuit in March, saying the Aageson family kept $200,000 he and his former wife, Rhonda, invested when they entered a joint sale venture in 2004.
David and Julie Aageson and Verges and Noreen Aageson sold their property, about 4,500 acres of land northwest of Havre that includes about 15 miles of the Milk River after it re-enters Montana from Canada, to the Montana departments of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Natural Resources and Conservation, for $5.8 million, with purchase of leases and rights raising the price to a little more than $6 million.
Aagesons sold 1,500 acres to DNRC for it to manage for the state school trust fund — which the Aagesons then would lease for farming — and 3,000 acres to FWP to manage as a wildlife refuge.
FWP announced last August that it had developed an interim management plan for that 3,000 acres and 6,000 acres of adjacent school trust land, which it named the Lost River Wildlife Area.
Some people decried the 2012 sale, saying the state paid too much for the land and that the sale took it away from people who would buy it to continue farming and ranching the land.
Aagesons maintained that the recreational, paleontological, archaeological, historical, biological and natural resource aspects of the land made it well worth the price.
In his lawsuit, Ritter claims that he and his wife invested $200,000 in a joint venture to sell both families’ property, with the Ritters to receive 6.8 percent of the gross proceeds of a sale.
The group had been in contact with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana about selling the land, the lawsuit says, adding that the deal with Notre Dame fell through, and nothing further has occurred as far as selling the properties jointly as set in the agreement.
It says the Aagesons have not agreed to end the 2004 agreement, and “despite repeated demands” will not return the $200,000.
The response from the Aagesons says it was the Ritters who ended the agreement and caused financial loss.
The Aagesons were negotiating with the state government, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation and the California nonprofit The Trust for Public Lands to sell the Ritter and Aageson land as a single unit. In the process, the Aagesons invested more than $500,000 of their own money, the answer says.
A 2008 appraisal of the property listed a 2007 value of $15.8 million, the document says, with the cover sheet and first page of the appraisal attached.
The sale was not to create an archaeological dig site and it was not to be made to Notre Dame, which was working with the tribe regarding the possible purchase, the answer says.
The Aagesons, to whom the Ritters had granted power of attorney to effect sales, actually sold a portion of the land which was not part of the other negotiation for $3.4 million and paid the 6.8 percent share of the down payment to Ritters. For reasons unknown to the Aagesons, Ritters never cashed the $135,320 check, the answer says. The next payment of that sale was not made until 2009, 14 months after the Ritters withdrew from the agreement, the answer sys.
The Ritters unilaterally withdrew from the joint venture in 2008 and canceled the Aagesons’ power of attorney granted to make the sale, the answer says. That effectively killed the $15.8 million sale, it says.
The $6 million sale to the state paid about 38 percent of what the joint venture sale would have paid, the answer says.
The Aagesons ask in their answer and counterclaim that the court find against Ritter's demand and award damages, amount to be determined in a trial, from the Ritters to the Aagesons instead.