EAST MISSOULA — Unable to reach a consensus and citing the desires of residents, Missoula County commissioners have delayed a decision on whether to approve a zoning change for a vacant parcel of land in East Missoula.
If approved by the county, revocation of old zoning for the Highway 200 parcel would bring the property in line with surrounding zoning and allow for a greater mix of uses, including more housing.
But the project won’t include any ground-floor retail or commercial offerings, which is something the East Missoula community has included in plans it hopes will guide the transformation of the Highway 200 corridor.
“We haven’t had a discussion on how we incentive ground-floor commercial,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “There’s plenty of obstacles to that, but I’m not saying they’re not insurmountable. If we want to shape community design, I’d like to see us be more aggressive in figuring something out.”
A zoning variation was placed upon the property in 2011 to accommodate a site plan that sought to build 44 housing units in three buildings. That current variation allows nothing more on the property. But the project never took place, and it’s now limiting current development efforts.
Aligning the property’s zoning with the surrounding area would permit Castle Rock Construction to build 59 units — a number that makes the project financially viable. But some area residents oppose it and want to see something different on the parcel of private property.
“I would support more of a neighborhood center, something having services that would help the East Missoula community,” said one East Missoula resident. “I’m not sure we have adequate services to support 59 more dwelling units at the moment. It would make living in East Missoula more stressful and uncomfortable and unsafe for a lot of people if there were a large multi-family dwelling unit right in the middle of town.”
Plans for the Highway 200 corridor through East Missoula call for a number of improvements, though they remain unfunded.
Adding to the zoning challenges, Missoula County is currently working on new zoning, which could be in place within a year. The development team said its proposed project will align with that future zoning.
But some East Missoula residents, along with Strohmaier, want the county to wait for that future zoning to be adopted before revoking the variation placed upon the property in 2011.
However, waiting may not be an option under state law, according to Deputy County Attorney John Hart.
“Until it is adopted, we still have to live with the zoning regulations that are in place,” he said.
The county’s vision for the corridor identifies the parcel in question as a neighborhood center, making some commissioners reluctant to change the zoning without some form of commercial or retail element.
It’s among the reasons they asked the developers to allow them to delay a decision until next month.
“This is arguably one of the most important properties in East Missoula,” said Strohmaier. “We’ve seen any number of proposals for this property, some of which I found to be completely out of alignment with trying to create a community feel and character.”
Some also have expressed concerns that East Missoula is ill-equipped to accommodate 59 more housing units without improvements to infrastructure along the Highway 200 corridor. But the development team says the project would begin those improvements.
“This property is currently an open parking lot and so people cut across it. It’s leading to some of the traffic confusion in the area,” said Paul Forsting of IMEG, which is representing the developer. “When these buildings are put in, they’re going to define the road area. We’re going to put in sidewalks and extend water and sewer. There are significant infrastructure improvements as part of the project, and we think that’s helpful.”