MISSOULA - A Missoula developer is making a second attempt to change the zoning on a vacant parcel of land off Interstate 90 to allow for more housing, something city staff said complies with the growth policy.
But neighborhood opposition to the project remains strong and Grant Creek residents have mustered their resources in an effort to block the request, just as they did in 2020.
The Missoula City Council on Wednesday opened its hearing on Grant Creek Village. The city denied the request two years ago but this time, the developer has made changes to the project and hopes it satisfies the council’s initial concerns.
“This complies with the growth policy,” city planner Dave DeGrandpre said of the project. “The current zoning is less compliant with the growth policy than what’s being proposed.”
KJA Development LLC is seeking a zoning change that would allow for as many as 1,185 housing units. However, the development team has imposed a limit of just 700 units and has detailed its plans in a non-binding development agreement.
The city’s growth policy identifies the area as suited for high density, which allows between 24 to 43 units per acre. As proposed, Grant Creek Village is seeking a density of 15.3 units per acre, still below what’s called for in the growth policy.
Project representatives said the zoning change would allow the project to build four stories, which would preserve more open space within the project. That would allow for a park, playground, a pool and other residential amenities.
“We can get the same unit count out of current zoning, but the development becomes more dense,” said Spencer Hoyt of Hoyt Engineering. “The fourth floor allows us to create that open space. One of the main reasons we’re requesting taller building heights is that it gives us more open space throughout the development.”
The property encompasses two parcels totaling 44 acres off Lower Grant Creek Road and Interstate 90. It served as a gravel quarry in the past and is identified for high-density residential development in the 2015 growth policy, which the City Council adopted.
But the same issues that quashed the project in 2020 remain, opponents argue. That includes concerns over traffic congestion, which could be mitigated, city planners have said, and fire danger. Both sides have presented expert statements regarding the fire risk.
The developers have noted the county’s community wildfire protection plan, which says the property falls into the same classification as much of the city. The hazard assessment also suggests the property bears no greater risk of fire than the rest of Missoula.
“The proposed Grant Creek Village development will not significantly impact the ability of inhabitants to egress to a safe location in the event of a wildfire,” assistant Missoula fire chief Gordy Hughes was quoted as saying. “Nor will it impact the ability of emergency responders to ingress for emergency purposes.”
But Mike Cole of the Grant Creek Wildfire Task Force disagreed, saying the staff report completed by the city overlooked an independent study that came to a different conclusion. He also cited recent grassland fires in the urban interface in Colorado.
“The staff report was pretty silent on our three years of research – wildfire, climate change and risk factors,” said Cole. “We spent a lot of time working on it to explain why increased density is not a good idea in the wildland-urban interface.”
Members of the City Council have requested further input from city fire officials. Already, a number of homes have been permitted in the forested areas of upper and middle Grant Creek, though its development in lower Grant Creek that’s now an issue.
“Given the magnitude of the safety issue and this decision we have to make, I need a much better grasp of what our tools are to evacuate people, how we’d approach it, and what best practices are,” said council member Gwen Jones. “I need more than basic statements.”
The Grant Creek neighborhood remains the only neighborhood in recent memory to successfully fend off a zoning request. Other neighborhoods have tried for various reasons, including traffic and fire, but never with success.
For some, the project comes down to a question of equity and whether all neighborhoods will share equal burden in meeting the city’s housing needs. For others, the project doesn’t fit and will change the neighborhood’s character. For others still, it would provide essential housing in a suitable location.
“These are very similar concerns we’ve heard time and time again, and I understand where people are coming from, wanting to protect their back yards from wildfire, traffic congestion and the like,” said former council member Heather Harp, who now heads Habitat for Humanity Missoula.
“And yet here we are in a housing crisis that’s completely unprecedented. We have 2,400 homes not built over the last decade in large part due to significant determining factors of neighborhood resistance.”
Opponents remain unmoved, however, and don’t believe the project is right for their neighborhood. Their concerns remain rooted in traffic congestion and density.
“All the policy goals and objectives they (developers) didn’t meet last time around aren’t met this time,” said resident Kim Burke. “It’s not in the urban core, it’s not served by transit and probably never will be. It’s not connected to services or parks and schools by safe multi-model transportation. It doesn’t harmonize with existing development or blend with neighborhood character.”