Hellgate Gardens subdivision wins unanimous City Council approval over neighbors’ protests

The Hellgate Gardens subdivision will be located near the existing Flynn Ranch, 44 Ranch, Pleasant View and Hellgate Meadows subdivisions. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Residents of several fast-growing neighborhoods on Missoula’s western edge packed Monday night’s City Council meeting to protest a proposed subdivision of 36 townhouses across from Hellgate Elementary School.

Although not opposed to growth, they said the 6.5-acre Hellgate Gardens development is too dense and would place even more pressure on the already overcrowded and dangerous Flynn Lane.

But council members said the city desperately needs more homes – smaller, affordable ones – and that a better street grid will naturally follow the area’s development.

Their votes in favor of the subdivision’s annexation, new RT5.4 zoning and townhome exemption were unanimous.

Jenny Baker of Development Services provided the background: Hellgate Gardens was zoned for one house per acre before developer Adam Hertz requested RT5.4, which allows about 8 units per acre. The plan approved Monday represents about 6 units per acre – or 22 single-unit and seven two-unit townhomes.

The two-unit townhomes are expected to sell for about $250,000 each, while the single-unit townhomes likely will be priced at between $275,000 and $325,000, according to Hertz.

As required by the city, 11 percent of the development will be set aside as open space – in this case, a central community garden and park.

The townhomes will be located directly across the street from Hellgate Elementary School, on Siren Road west of Flynn Lane. The property owners are Mary and Bruce Siren.

In a rare move, Doug Reisig, the superintendent of Hellgate School District, wrote City Council members about the development – although stressing that he was not taking sides for or against Hertz’s plans.

His worry, Reisig said, was about increased traffic and the safety of his students.

“It is the hope of the Board of Trustees that the developers of this proposed new residential development project and Missoula Development Services take into account the reality of the increased vehicular traffic that will accompany” the Hellgate Gardens subdivision, he wrote.

“Over 1,450 elementary school-aged children attend Hellgate Elementary,” he said. “Efforts to mitigate potential safety issues for children, due to increased vehicular traffic, is paramount to the school district and the Board of Trustees.”

Many of the eight owners of the Old Flynn Ranch were in Monday night’s audience. Their homes are on Tipperary Way.

Sheila McKinnon told council members that traffic on Flynn Lane is already a nightmare and will only get worse with the addition of 36 more homes on the one-way-in, one-way-out Siren Road.

“Traffic is a nightmare now,” she said. “What if we add 70 more cars coming and going every day? What if we add a fire truck or ambulance right as school lets out?”

In a letter to Development Services, the Tipperary Way homeowners said Siren Road already cannot support the traffic it sees each day, and that there’s no way to improve or extend the street because a conservation easement prohibits any crossing of an adjoining property.

In the letter and in Monday night’s testimony, the residents said the RT5.4 zoning is “out of character” with nearby subdivisions, including Pleasant View, Flynn Ranch, 44 Ranch and Hellgate Meadows. All have less dense zoning.

“Zoning is a tool used by municipal government to create compatible environments in a city so that conflicting uses do not cause problems,” the homeowners wrote. “Current zoning regulations have already produced a working environment around Hellgate Elementary, providing adequate homes and yards for families with children.

“To insert a change in this usage to small townhouses on small lots would be more compatible in an area where there is a need for single or working couple occupancy with higher incomes. The only possible advantage for the change in zoning would be to increase the developers’ profit margin by squeezing more houses into the six acres than is normal in the surrounding area.”

Said one Tipperary Way resident at Monday’s meeting: “This 6.5 acres needs to be looked at as an isolated piece of land with established neighborhoods around it. This would be a good one to say ‘no’ to.”

Leland Davidson, who testified on behalf of his parents, suggested a zoning of RT10, which would match the remaining property on Siren Road, he said, and would allow 24 units.

“I find the developer’s claims that this density is required for the subdivision to be profitable,” he said. “This property would be developed and will be profitable at a lower density.”

While thanking the residents for attending the meeting and expressing their concerns, City Council members were undeterred.

Councilwoman Annelise Hedahl, a real estate agent, checked the current realty listings in Missoula and found just 34 homes in the same price range available. She has seven interested buyers in that price range, she said, and there are 600 other real estate agents in the city.

Councilman Jon Wilkins said the RT5.4 zoning is already employed in his own Lewis and Clark neighborhood, as well as in the Rattlesnake and University neighborhoods.

“We have people clamoring to live in the Lewis and Clark area,” he said. “You have room for a front yard, a dog, the school is right there. The only thing that bothers me about this development is the townhomes.”

Councilwoman Marilyn Marler repeated a message she’s voiced several times recently in support of the affordability brought on by more dense development.

“We have to have more places for people to live,” Marler said. “I would be comfortable with even more density in this development.”

Building homes within easy walking distance to the school is a plus, she said, while conceding that “there are some traffic issues here.”

In fact, Councilman John DiBari said his biggest struggle with Hellgate Gardens is the “greater transportation network” in the area and its inability to handle the area’s traffic.

DiBari said he visited the building site and looks forward to addressing the transportation issues. A number of other residential, commercial and industrial developments are proposed in the same area – accounting for much of Missoula’s ongoing and planned future growth.

“The development will be the catalyst for the transportation network that we need,” DiBari said.