MISSOULA — The Riverfront Trails subdivision proposed for Lower Miller Creek won City Council approval on Monday night, along with annexation, paving the way for 176 lots on the south side of the city for additional housing.
But approval didn't come without a six-hour debate over a roundabout and other project elements including who can live in a senior residential facility, building heights, setbacks and an attempt by some to set policy on the fly.
The developers behind Riverfront Trails were forced to make a number of concessions to appease council opponents. Among them stood a mandate that the developer fund a seven-figure roundabout on behalf of the entire Lower Miller Creek area, unless “a development agreement for cost share is executed, subject City Council approval.”
At the same time, the city said it was trying to get away from development agreements. Council also was facing a statutory deadline to approve or deny the Riverfront Trails project – a timeline the developer agreed to waive.
The requirement to place the cost of road improvements squarely on Riverfront Trails was introduced by council member Stacie Anderson, who lives in the impacted area and fought at length against aspects of the development.
Anderson said the roundabout wouldn't be needed “if not” for the Riverfront Trails subdivision. But city staff disagreed, saying the roundabout was inevitable and the cost should be applied proportionally across the entire Lower Miller Creek neighborhood, as it has been in the past and in other areas of the city.
Under current practice, Riverfront Trails should be required to fund roughly 35% of the roundabout, staff calculated. Any additional costs placed by the city upon Riverfront Trails may set precedent for future development across Missoula, and it may be illegal, according to city staff.
“This (roundabout) will serve a lot of other development happening in that Lower Miller Creek area,” said Public Works Director Jeremy Keene. “There's already 300 other units developed further out on Lower Miller Creek Road and there's 400 units to go. The need for the roundabout is really about planning for the entire neighborhood, not just one development.”
Still, other members of council set aside “reasonable benefit” and attempted to place the cost of the roundabout squarely upon the developer and future residents of Riverfront Trails.
“Any time we can put transportation costs on market-rate development like this, I support it,” said council member Daniel Carlino. “It would be best for the developer to pay for the entire cost of the roundabout.”
Who should pay?
The city has long implemented fees to pay for transportation improvements needed to fund growing areas of the city. That has come in the form of impact fees and special improvement districts.
Such an approach is used to spread the cost among residents of the immediate area who benefit from the work, without strapping residents in other areas of the city with the costs.
But Anderson said residents of Miller Creek should not be required to fund the cost of infrastructure prompted by Riverfront Trails.
“This to me is the tipping point,” Anderson argued. “This particular development really changes the entire traffic pattern for this area. This particular roundabout and its placement disproportionately creates the entrance point to this (new) subdivision.”
The Montana Legislature is set to convene next month and could recommend methods to streamline housing development, including cutting barriers and legal red tape created by individual municipalities.
After several hours – and shortly after a recess – Anderson amended her proposal and sought to place 100% of the cost of the roundabout upon the developer unless a development agreement was reached to share the costs down the road.
“I'm just trying to protect the neighborhood,” Anderson said toward the end of the meeting.