MISSOULA - Advocates and opponents of a proposed rezone for lower Grant Creek closed their arguments on Wednesday, including issues related to fire and traffic, following several weeks of presentations.
The final decision now lies in the hands of the City Council, which denied a similar request by the same developer on the same parcel two years ago. But this time many factors have changed, according to city planners, who have recommended the rezone be approved.
“There are a number of things for the council to consider. Housing demand has continued to outpace supply, and there have been transportation improvements,” said planner Dave DeGrandpre. “There’s a new westbound turn lane onto the interstate and an additional through lane heading south. That was not the case back in 2020.”
KJA Development LLC is seeking a zoning change that would allow for more than 1,100 apartment units on a former gravel pit encompassing around 44 acres. The development team has imposed a limit of just 700 units, however, and it has detailed its plans in a non-binding development agreement.
The city’s growth policy identifies the parcel as being ideal for high-density development and calls for between 24 to 43 residential units per acre. As proposed, Grant Creek Village is seeking a density of just 15.3 units per acre, which is below what’s sought in the growth policy.
“The majority of the property and all of the north parcel are designated residential high-density development greater than 24 units per acre,” said DeGrandpre. “It promotes and encourages a variety of housing types, high density certainly, and multi-family certainly.”
Those for and against the project have made their arguments clear over the past month, and their reasoning hasn’t changed. Facts surrounding traffic impacts, fire risk and other issues have varied depending on who’s making the argument.
But city and county fire officials, along with Disaster and Emergency Services, said the rezone would not impact their ability to respond to an emergency or complete an evacuation.
“When we look around the valley of Missoula, we have issues limited to ingress or egress in nearly all our drainages. It’s the reality,” said Adriane Beck, director of Disaster and Emergency Services. “Higher density will pose some additional challenges, but they’re not insurmountable.”
Public Works also said any traffic impacts could be mitigated using impact fees generated by the development. The project must contribute slightly more than $1 million to the city, with approximately $630,000 of that earmarked for transportation, officials said.
Still, opponents of the project remain against the rezone, saying it will change the fabric of their neighborhood. RT Cox with Friends of Grant Creek blasted the project for more than 30 minutes during Wednesday’s hearing for its design, density and general location.
“This is just a concept. This concept can be changed at any time because it’s a zoning decision,” he said. “As long as whatever is proposed there fits within the zoning requirements, they can build it.”
Missoula’s housing market remains tight and vacancy rates remain well below industry standards for a healthy market. In the first quarter of 2022, vacancy rates hovered at around 2%. That has played a hand in driving rental prices up.
But opponents of the project contend that Missoula’s housing issues shouldn’t compel City Council to approve the rezone. Cox suggested the developer consider single-family homes, saying it “fits into the character of the neighborhood better and serves an important housing need.”
Under state law, if City Council denies the rezone, the property’s current zoning would limit more than 30 acres to single-family homes. As Cox said, “there’s a lot of apartments being built around (Missoula)” and single-family housing wasn’t a bad thing.
“Are we going to stick with long-term planning efforts that have involved everyone in the community and a lot of time and effort and money, or are we going to make a rash decision because there’s a housing shortage and a crisis mentality?” he said. “Don’t add to the problem by doubling the population of Grant Creek.”
The development site as it appears.
Supporters of the project have also held their ground, saying the development would provide needed housing at a suitable location – just off the I-90 interchange and the head of a major shopping district.
Cody Schwartz, a project engineer, said a good deal of infrastructure improvements have already been made to accommodate the project, including stormwater retention and a sediment removal system.
The developer has also paid for a new booster pump to the Grant Creek station, which benefits all residents on city water within the drainage. The project team has petitioned to join the transportation district and has pledged other public improvements as well.
Project representatives said the zoning change would allow the project to build four stories, which would preserve more open space within the project. That would allow for a park, playground, a pool and other residential amenities.
The City Council is expected to make a final decision on Monday night and will need a super-majority vote to override a petition signed by Grant Creek residents who don’t want the rezone approved.
“If it’s in compliance with the growth plan, it’s not considered spot zoning,” said Ryan Sudbury with the City Attorney’s Office. “The fact the growth plan indicates this is in conformance as high-density residential, spot zoning isn’t an issue.”