MISSOULA - The Consolidated Planning Board on Tuesday night gave unanimous support to a 176-lot subdivision planned for Lower Miller Creek, praising it for its design and protection of the Bitterroot River floodplain and riparian area.
The Riverfront Trails subdivision is proposed on 92 acres off Old Bitterroot and Lower Miller Creek roads. However, nearly 44 acres would be protected as open space and provide public access to the river.
“Roughly 24 acres would be donated to the city covering the entire Bitterroot River frontage,” said city planner Cassie Tripard. “Another 19 acres within the floodplain would be protected as a common area by the homeowner's association.”
Current zoning allows less opportunity to design a project that meets today's needs, members of the development team said. As a result, they're requesting that the city amend its growth policy to allow for medium-density development.
They're also asking the city to rezone the property to allow a wider mix of uses. The project includes an array of housing types, a senior living center and a church.
“This really offers an opportunity for an extensive mix of housing types in a really meaningful layout,” said Allison Mouch, a project representative with Orion Planning and Design. “We worked hard to lay out and design a neighborhood that reflects more traditional development types and provides not only housing choices but accessibility through affordability.”
As proposed, the project would include single-family housing, duplexes and townhouses at a density of roughly eight units per acre. Current zoning would allow for slightly more than 179 units on the entire 92 acres. The requested rezone would create 176 lots while preserving 44 acres.
Mouch said the senior living center helped drive the project's design. Its proximity to Jeanette Rankin Elementary School is seen as an added bonus that opens up opportunities for certain generational programs.
The subdivision will be connected to the school by a path.
“The Legends of Missoula facility is a very intentional component and was sort of the foundation of how this all came to be,” Mouch said. “Providing affordable housing for seniors is a need that's been recognized in Missoula County.”
Members of the planning board recommended approval of the project with two unanimous votes, and they praised the developers for the project's design, its blend of housing types and its protection of open space and habitat.
“This is appropriate given the changes we've had in the growth policy and the recent rezones as well,” said board member Tung Pham. “It makes sense to provide the opportunity for slightly denser zoning in this particular area.”
Before the project came to be, the city had already designed improvements for Lower Miller Creek Road. When constructed in 2025, it will include sidewalks, curb and gutter, and bike lanes. A roundabout also is planned at the intersection of Lower Miller Creek and Old Bitterroot roads.
While the Riverfront Trails subdivision will increase the area's population, city staff said the infrastructure is well-suited to accommodate additional traffic.
“From a traffic capacity perspective, a two-lane road is going to provide more than adequate capacity for future development that we anticipate seeing in Lower Miller Creek,” said Ryan Guelff, the city's transportation engineer.
Like all projects in Missoula, area residents expressed concern over added traffic and the lack of ingress and egress out of Lower Miller Creek.
Traffic comes up in nearly all subdivision proposals in Missoula, and residents nearly always voice opposition to new housing in their neighborhood. The Riverfront Trails project is proving to be no different.
“It's reckless and dangerous to suggest this increase of population and traffic won't affect the security of the current community in Lower Miller Creek,” one woman said on Tuesday. “We're living in a possible perilous situation. We have a fire season here, and sometimes it's a serious fire season. There aren't enough exit routes to safely manage the evacuation of the established population.”
In recent years, the city has looked at the potential of another bridge across the Bitterroot River to serve the Lower Miller Creek area. If constructed, supporters contend, the bridge would provide another exit to US Highway 93.
But city officials said studies have shown that a new bridge wouldn't alleviate traffic. While the proposal has been studied, a bridge has been deemed unfeasible.
“They evaluated three locations that were potentially feasible,” said Aaron Wilson, the city's transportation planner. “But given the geography of the area, the natural resources, existing traffic and congestion on Highway 93, and the substantial cost, it wasn't a feasible option. It wasn't going to solve any of the traffic problems.”
In recommending the project for approval, members of the planning board said times had changed since the area was originally zoned 25 years ago. The City Council will consider approving the project in the weeks ahead.
“We have seen a number of subdivision proposals, and I think this is one of the more thoughtful ones,” said planning board member Dori Gilels. “It's taken into consideration good design and preservation of open space, and it really looks at what's best for the neighborhood there.”