— Sherry Devlin reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA – Faced with a “bizarre local government” decision 31 years ago and an unpopular reversal two weeks ago, Missoula City Council members slowed things down on Monday night and said they’ll reconsider whether the alley behind Hoagieville’s South Avenue drive-in should be open or closed.
“This is a really weird situation,” said Councilman Jordan Hess, who asked that the issue be sent back to committee for more discussion – and an attempt to make a decision that resolves both Hoagieville’s and nearby neighbors’ concerns.
Hess told about 25 Lewis and Clark neighborhood residents who came to Monday’s meeting that council members were struggling with how best to resolve a “bizarre local government activity” in 1988 that resulted in the alley’s closure.
Back then, council members were concerned about Helen Petroff, who has lived on Livingston Avenue directly behind the drive-in restaurant since 1956. Her back door is just 5 feet from the alley; her lawn runs to its edge.
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Cars were speeding down the alley at all hours of the day and night, throwing gravel onto Petroff’s house and into the garden.
There were wrecks, former councilman Jon Wilkins said. “It was hard to even sleep. If you open that alley, I’m afraid all that commotion would happen again.”
But Hoagieville owner Chris Goble wants to move his business into the future, and already has the City Council’s approval to raze the old-school drive-in and replace it with a modern taphouse and restaurant.
He needs customers of his new, larger business to have access through the alley, Goble told council members.
Frustrated and angry, Goble reminded the council and audience at Monday night’s meeting that the issue involves “a public alley, a city owned alley, not my alley.”
Two weeks ago, council members agreed to fully reopen the alley, but with speed bumps, paving provided by Goble and signs directing traffic toward South Avenue and away from Petroff’s home.
But Petroff and other nearby neighbors said they didn’t know the issue had resurfaced and so weren’t at that meeting.
So last week, they asked the council to reconsider its decision.
On Monday, they got a unanimous “yes” to reconsideration, starting with an 8:30 a.m. Wednesday committee meeting. If the committee finds a solution, the council could revisit the issue again next Monday night.
Goble, meanwhile, begged for a decision so he can begin construction of his new restaurant.
“This reconsideration is the last thing holding us up,” he said. “We need a resolution of this matter. I’m about to lose subcontractors. My costs are going up every day. I just need a decision.”
Petroff’s son-in-law, Tom Hightower, said the nearest neighbors met last week and agreed on a plan whereby the barricades would prevent drivers from going down the alley directly alongside Petroff’s home. But there would be access to the rest of the alley, providing Goble’s customers with a way to exit his parking lot and take the alley to South Avenue.
What won’t work, Hightower said, is to fully reopen the alley. “It would become a traffic corridor, where right now it’s a well-used pedestrian and bicycle access.”
“I just don’t think it is safe to open that alley,” he said.
Still, Hess wanted advice from city engineer Troy Monroe, who said any of three options were acceptable – but his preference was to fully open the alley.
That left Hess with even more uncertainty.
“The applicant team (Hoagieville) has been great,” Hess said. “Absolutely. It is important that the applicant be able to move forward.” (Mayor John Engen told Goble that he could get his building permit so he could hire contractors and get to work while they alley issue is resolved.)
But the neighbors also have “very valid concerns,” the councilman said. “It’s a strange situation.
“There is a solution hiding in there somewhere.”