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Missoula City Council frustrated by subdivisions, regulations during long-winded session

Posted: 7:33 AM, Oct 08, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-08 16:17:20-04
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MISSOULA — Missoula wrestled with growth on Monday night – evermore dense subdivisions, tighter standards for townhome exemption developments, and the lack of affordable housing for homeless citizens and working-class families.

In the end, most of the decisions were either delayed or destined for re-examination when Mayor John Engen convenes a working group of political leaders and developers who will rewrite the rules governing subdivisions.

In a tedious four and a half hour meeting, the Missoula City Council held four public hearings, all related to the ongoing development boom and the anxiety it is creating.

“This is a slap in the face of affordable housing,” developer Gene Mostad told council members during debate over a proposed rewrite of regulations governing Townhome Exemption Developments.

If the development process was simple in Missoula, there would be a lot more developers here,” Mostad said. “There’d be a lot more houses on the market. There’d be more affordable housing. But you are not going to get more developers in Missoula if you continue to do things like this.”

After 90 minutes of frustration and debate, the City Council approved tougher regulations on TEDs – small developments intended to move more quickly through the approval process, thereby lowering costs to developers and homebuyers.

But no one – not council members, not Engen and not developers – was satisfied.

Under the new rules, Townhome Exemption Developments can have up to 10 dwelling units in certain zoning districts and up to 20 dwellings in other zoning districts. But that’s the max.

TEDs aren’t allowed if a development has more than 20 dwellings – or if it has significant environmental challenges, or if any part of the development has a slope of 25 percent or if it’s in the floodplain. They also aren’t allowed for commercial developments.

The regulations specify everything from lot sizes to parks to a tight timetable for approval by city planners. They’re complicated and “very confusing,” developer Dave Edgell told City Council members.

“All this is going to do is make it more and more complicated, and add more and more costs,” he said.

Council members also were frustrated. Councilwoman Julie Merritt wanted to send the whole issue back to committee, but that wasn’t allowed.

Because the council had enacted interim TED regulations last spring with a six-month expiration date, they had to make a decision on Monday night. The decision could have been to extend the interim regulations, but most council members didn’t see what that would accomplish.

They voted 7-3 to approve the new regulations, with council members Heather Harp, Michelle Cares and Julie Merritt voting “no.”

The debate – and frustration on all sides – prompted Engen to announce that he’ll assemble a working group of city officials and developers to take a detailed look at Missoula’s subdivision regulations and come up with better guidelines. That will include another try at rewriting the TED rules.

“If the council passes this, I will hold my nose and sign it,” the mayor said. “The people who build houses in our community don’t like this. They don’t like our subdivision regulations very much either.”

Engen said the new TED regulations are “cumbersome” and “challenging.”

They were born of the council’s disdain for the proposed Hillview Crossing TED, which was proposed on the steep slopes just off Hillview Way.

“We started with a notion that because we didn’t like a project on a hillside in Missoula, Montana, we would stop all TED developments,” Engen said. “Council members called for an emergency ordinance governing TEDs. I questioned the premise of whether we had an emergency. So we went with an interim ordinance and imposed a deadline for a permanent ordinance.”

Pass the ordinance – flawed though it may be, Engen told council members, “and I will start working on new subdivision and TED regulations with the people who build houses.”

“We want housing and affordability, and we want it now,” he said. “Yet we are tipping up regulations that carry additional challenges and costs.”

Engen gave props to the city planners who tried to interpret the “mixed messages” they received from City Council members into a revised TED governing document – all while dealing with “tremendous development pressure.”

“Now we have an opportunity to get to an ideal, or something closer to an idea,” the mayor said.

City Council members delayed a decision Monday on the most controversial subdivision currently on their docket: the proposed Hellgate Meadows West, 57.5 acres of land north of Mullan Road, east of Flynn Lane and west of Hellgate Meadows.

As they did two weeks ago, neighbors of the proposed subdivision complained about inadequate roads to handle even the current traffic. They worried about the density of development and the impact on Hellgate Elementary School. They wondered about crime and livability.

For the development to move forward, council members must approve an amendment to the city’s growth policy – the new subdivision would be more dense than the growth policy envisioned – and a rezoning to allow more homes per acre.

But rather than vote on the rezoning and growth policy exception, council members sent the matter back to committee for further discussion this Wednesday. The matter likely will return to the full council for a vote on Oct. 21.

On Wednesday, council members and neighbors will hear more about plans for a significantly larger park in the subdivision, proposed Monday night by WGM Group’s Nick Kaufman.

Neighbors of a proposed subdivision west of Reserve Street between Mount and Strand also helped fill the audience at Monday’s meeting.

They, too, brought concerns about more dense development, more traffic – and in their case, a creep of commercial development from Reserve and the eventual displacement of a mobile home park that currently provides affordable housing.

Ryan Salisbury, project engineer for WGM Group, explained that Monday night’s approval by the City Council only delivered the needed zoning change. Neighbors still will have a chance to comment when the actual subdivision returns for approval.

The rezoning would allow development of up to 25 units per acre, although Salisbury said developer John Brauer envisions 12 units per acre of affordable housing.

Finally, the council heard a presentation on plans for the Trinity Apartments on 4 acres of land near the county detention center.

A collaboration of Missoula city and county governments and social service agencies, the development will provide housing for low-income and homeless citizens.

It will include a center that helps people re-enter the community from the criminal justice system, and will support law enforcement, local hospitals and emergency responders answering calls related to homelessness and addiction. Services will include harm reduction, health care, and behavioral and mental health evaluation and support.

Monday night was the public’s chance to comment on the development before it goes before the Montana Board of Housing to request low-income housing tax credits. But no one in the audience had anything to say about the project, to be built on land donated by Missoula County just off Mullan Road.

Engen thanked the county for donating the land, a critical piece of the project. “This gets us a long way down the road to solving homelessness in Missoula,” he said.