Members of the City Council on Wednesday agreed to a public hearing to rezone 57 acres off Mullan Road for a future housing development, though not without a lengthy discussion and a petition signed by neighboring property owners.
Approval of the hearing date could come next Monday and may include a development agreement to ensure the project doesn’t change scope if it were to fall under new ownership.
The agreement was requested by the developers in an effort to provide assurance to neighbors that the project would remain as presented.
“The agreement actually runs with the land,” said Nick Kaufman with the WGM Group. “Any successive owner is bound by this development agreement.”
The property includes two parcels totaling around 57 acres at Mullan Road and Flynn Lane. The developers, Dave Edgell and Wade Hoyt of HEH LLC in Missoula, are seeking to rezone the property so it more closely reflects the neighboring Hellgate Meadows and Pleasant View subdivisions.
Current zoning on the property restricts the developers from meeting “emerging public needs” through greater housing density, something advocates see as one of the project’s greatest assets.
“In this case, the emerging public need is for more housing,” said Jenny Baker of Development Services. “This amendment supports that need by permitting more density and a great number of housing types.”
Representing the developers, Kaufman said the project has been 18 months in planning and design. While city staff have been good to work with, he said, the rigorous process has been costly and time consuming.
Kaufman said the city now has an opportunity to provide workforce housing adjacent to services through a well-planned project designed by a single engineering firm.
“You have to take development in small steps, and we like to start with good design,” he said. “We look at how that good design fits into the fabric of the neighborhood. This property sits in the heart of where our growth policy says we need to grow, but it’s restricted by its current zoning.”
As proposed, the first phase of the project would cover eight acres and include a walking plaza and green space. It would also bring Mary Jane Boulevard closer to Mullan Road – a connection first proposed back in 2002.
Housing types include single family, cottages and townhomes. Kaufman said the intent is to serve “the missing middle” in Missoula’s housing market.
“This is what our workforce needs,” he said. “This is what we’re trying to accomplish.”
But the project has faced stiff opposition from neighbors for a variety of reasons, ranging from mere change to traffic. Some also fear the Hellgate School District doesn’t have the capacity to accommodate more students, though Baker said the district has stated otherwise.
“There is sufficient capacity at the school for additional students,” Baker said.
Still, enough surrounding property owners have signed an official protest, meeting the threshold required by state law to force a super majority vote on City Council. That will require two-thirds of the City Council members who cast a vote to do so in support of the rezoning.
“It’s unique in that the zoning statute says two thirds of those present and voting,” said City Attorney Jim Nugent. “You only count the number of people who actually cast a vote, and two thirds of those who cast a vote must approve it.”
While all members of the council present on Wednesday approved to send the project to a public hearing, Ward 2 council member Mirtha Becerra expressed her opposition to the project, saying its timing was off.
While she agreed that Missoula needed more housing, she believes the development should wait until a federal grant comes through to build a network of roads and a more robust planning process.
“My concern is simply that we need a stronger, more comprehensive public process for this, one that engages the community,” she said. “I feel like we’re on our way to getting there. I’m in support of moving this forward to a hearing, but I won’t be supporting a rezone at this point.”
But city staff said there was no guarantee that Missoula will receive the federal grant and suggested the project move forward as proposed. The developers have already agreed to build the southern stretch of Mary Jane Boulevard so that it connects with Mullan Road.
A traffic light at the intersection is planned.
Kaufman said further delays mark just another day Missoula falls further behind on its housing needs. The city’s lack of housing supply has been blamed in part for rapidly increasing housing prices.
Both the neighboring Hellgate Meadows and Pleasant View subdivisions were controversial at one point, he added. It’s those new residents who are now petitioning to block the proposed housing project.
“These (developers) have purchased property, put down earnest money, spent in excess of $100,000 in planning for this process,” said Kaufman. “You’ll always be updating and always be planning, and that’s not bad. But there’s a point at which when you have an opportunity and you have a pretty good set of tools in place, you probably should seize that opportunity.”