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Missoula planning board approves 347-unit Heron’s Landing subdivision

Posted at 1:09 PM, Aug 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-19 15:09:13-04

MISSOULA — The Consolidated Planning Board on Tuesday night approved a subdivision proposal off Mullan Road, saying the project met the general spirit of a master plan being developed to guide future growth in the area.

But several members of the board also expressed reluctance with the project’s timing, saying the Mullan Area Master Plan isn’t yet finished and the Heron’s Landing subdivision, along with several others in the pipeline, will likely preempt the plan’s finalization.

All but one member of the board voted to approve the project.

“On balance, I think the developers have done a pretty good job here designing the actual project, given the location of this, the existing zoning, and its place in the draft Mullan plan,” said board member Dave Loomis. “It’s a place where residential development would be appropriate.”

The project is proposed by Teton Land & Development Group for 72 acres north of Mullan Road and south of the 44 Ranch subdivision. It would be served by George Elmer and Chuck Wagon drives, and it sits within the boundaries of the Mullan BUILD project.

The BUILD project involves a $13 million federal grant that will help lay the infrastructure needed to serve urban-style growth and development in the Mullan area. It also involves a separate but parallel land use plan, which is intended to help guide that future growth.

But a number of subdivision projects will likely preempt the Mullan Area Master Plan, which is moving slowly through local government. At least two other housing projects are planned for the area, most of them years in the making while another – Hellgate Meadows – has already been approved.

A draft of the Mullan Area Master Plan calls for around 6,000 residential units in the area.

“We’ve been at this planning process for two years now,” said Nick Kaufman, senior planner with WGM Group. “We need diversity of housing. Not being able to provide affordable workforce housing to our community manifests in many challenges.”

The project proposes 347 homes in a traditional neighborhood design. It’s largely comprised of single-family housing, though a lesser number of townhomes and row homes are planned along the project’s collector roads.

To accommodate the proposal, the developer is seeking a rezone request, which the planning board approved on Tuesday, along with a number of variances. The project would be built in multiple phases over several years and help boost the city’s housing stock.

“There’s always going to be trade offs,” said planning board member Caroline Lauer. “I think of how hard it is to find a place to live in Missoula. I think about the scale of that crisis, and this feels like it responds to that in a reasonable way.”

Critics of Heron’s Landing said the lots are too small when compared to neighboring 44 Ranch Estates, and the project will only increase traffic. They also believe the subdivision will consume agricultural land if approved.

While the soils haven’t been worked in several years, city planners said, it once served as a hay operation. The property’s value to agriculture and habitat was enough to convince board member Stephanie Potts to cast the only dissenting vote.

“In Missoula County, there’s a very limited amount of farmland and agricultural fields,” she said. “We’ve lost over 80% of our ag land and prime ag soils to development. What’s left is limited. It’s not okay for us to just look at what’s going on regionally any more. We keep pushing that off to other places, and then that land is lost.”

The area has been identified for growth in several city and county plans, including a draft of the Mullan Area Mast Plan. Housing in Missoula remains in short supply, a factor that plays into current housing costs.

“It’s what we want that area to be, as far as people having a place to live,” said planning board member Peter Bensen. “I appreciate our concerns of losing that ag land, but I’m willing to give up that land if we have density of people in that area that we can deal with in a reasonable way.”

Several board members said it was frustrating to see large subdivisions get ahead of the Mullan Area Master Plan, even if they’ve been years in the making. And most agreed that if the community was going to sacrifice agriculture land for housing, then that housing should be built at a higher density than what Heron’s Landing proposes.

“On the one hand, this development has been in the works for a long time and predates the Mullan master plan,” said planning board member Neva Hassanein.

“I would like to see it have greater density, and I would have liked to see the developers engage more directly in making it congruent with the (Mullan) plan. It’s hard for me to swallow the fact that this entire area is going to be developed. If we’re going to lose this land, then we should be developing it at much greater density.”