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Missoula Planning Board denies rezone for Lower Grant Creek housing project

Housing Growth
Posted at 11:41 AM, Apr 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-20 13:41:04-04

MISSOULA - The Missoula Consolidated Planning Board on Tuesday voted against a rezone request to increase the density of a project proposed in Lower Grant Creek just hours after housing experts cited an urgent need to increase the city’s housing inventory.

On a 5-3 vote, members of the board denied KJA Development’s request to rezone two parcels consisting of 44 acres that sought to increase the project’s density from around 495 units to 700.

The city’s planning department had recommended the request be approved, saying it meets the requirements of the city’s own growth policy. But members of the board sided with Grant Creek residents and opposed the request.

“The growth policy talks about residential density being in the core of the community, and I submit this is not the core of the community,” said board member Dave Loomis. “Residential services … are essential for a residential area, and these are not available in this area. All of the fire issues that have been brought up are totally relevant to the issue.”

The City Council will have the final determination, though it too sided with Grant Creek residents and their lobby two years ago when the project was first proposed but on an even larger scale. It was the first time in recent memory the City Council has blocked a requested rezone for housing.

Then, like now, some have suggested that opposition to the project lies beyond the concerns of safety and traffic cited by opponents, but rather has some socio-economic bases. Grant Creek has among the highest median home values in the city.

“What about everyone else before that got to build up Grant Creek in the timber, really in the wildland-urban interface,” said board member Josh Schroeder. “And now someone wants to build a little higher-density product at the mouth of Grant Creek and it’s a problem. In terms of equity, that needs to be thought about too.”

Other neighborhoods, including Miller Creek, are also limited by access, just like Grant Creek, and have concerns with fire. But Miller Creek continues to see a high pace of development and population growth, despite the concerns of residents.

Members of the Planning Board also cited other neighborhoods, such as River Road, which lacks infrastructure but recently saw the City Council and Planning Board approve another subdivision.

“I believe all areas of Missoula need to do their part to accommodate additional housing,” said Schroeder. “Grant Creek is organized, engaged, has the resources and shows up, and kudos to them. But this housing crisis is a Missoula housing crisis, not just for certain areas of the community. The growth policy recommends high density there.”

The four-hour hearing on Tuesday saw many voice support or opposition to the project. For opponents, concerns about access, trails, traffic, fire and density remained significant, despite the project’s diminished scale when proposed two years ago.

For supporters, the project would provide the city with needed housing and do so in a suitable location – a former gravel pit that sits adjacent to a freeway interchange. Since the last time the project was proposed, the city has added a second southbound lane to address traffic concerns.

Additional traffic concerns cited by opponents could be addressed, board member Tung Pham said. More often than not, development dictates where infrastructure improvements are made, such as the greater Mullan area, which has no infrastructure, no services, and yet stands as one of the fastest-growing areas of Missoula.

“Do we prevent development because we have limited access, or do we encourage more development that will encourage the city to prioritize expanding access,” Pham said. “If we cite access as an issue, it cuts off large portions of the city and surrounding areas for development.”

Pham and other project supporters said Missoula was growing and housing was needed at all levels and in all classes. Attempting to block that growth with restrictive zoning and limitations on development would further plague the city’s housing crisis and drive costs even higher.

Earlier in the day, housing experts in a number of industries said the city needed more than 600 housing units immediately just to meet current demand. The Grant Creek project, board members said, would help meet that number.

“Missoula is growing whether we like it or not,” Pham said. “We can try to prevent it, but if we prevent it with restrictive zoning, we’ll end up with a lot of single-family homes on large acres which isn’t what we want. We talk about housing being expensive, but that’s a supply problem. The infrastructure will come.”

Still, other members of the planning board were unmoved and remained opposed to the Grant Creek project.

“I think a four-story apartment building belongs in an urban core. There’s limited access to this area. It’s not compatible to the surrounding areas. There are single-family residences above it. I don’t see this as being a compatible use.”

The Grant Creek property is currently bounded by several multi-story hotels, three story apartments and several restaurants, including the Cracker Barrel and Starbucks.

“I feel this site is appropriate for more dense development. But I don’t want to be pro-housing at the exclusion of other important values on how this community grows,” said board member Dori Gilels. “There are some good things here, but I have a lot of hesitation there about the rezone request in and of itself. I agree we’re desperate for housing, but it’s possible to lose site of how we want to grow with that pressure on us.”