Over neighbors’ objections, Missoula City Council approves Grove Street townhomes

The Grove Street development includes 30 townhomes and 1 existing single-family home in the area west of Reserve Street and south of the Clark Fork River.

Saying Missoula’s housing shortage is more compelling than neighbors’ fears of overcrowded and incompatible development, City Council members voted 9-1 Monday night to approve a controversial subdivision of 30 townhomes along the Clark Fork River on the city’s western edge.

After nearly 90 minutes of presentations, public comment and council discussion, the Grove Street townhomes were approved over the objections of Ward 4 Councilman Jesse Ramos and nearby residents, 81 percent of whom signed a petition opposing the development.

Council members also approved annexation of the 10.63 acres into the city, again on a 9-1 vote. Two council members, John DiBari and Julie Armstrong, were absent.

“This is a good project that should go through,” said Ward 1 Councilwoman Gwen Jones. “We have an affordable housing crisis and an inventory crisis in Missoula. That is the highest value in terms of how we evaluate this development.”

Unlike the neighbors, Jones said it is “completely reasonable” to build townhomes next to single-family homes. If Missoula does not allow infill development, as the Koldenich family intends at Grove Street, then it will continue to sprawl – contrary to the goals set in the 2015 growth policy, Jones said.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Michelle Cares agreed, although she voiced support for a number of the neighbors’ complaints.

“I wish there were more sidewalks,” Cares said. “I don’t think there is enough parking. I’m concerned about the traffic. I understand the complaints about the number of units per acre and the size of the units.”

“Things change,” added Ward 2 Councilwoman Heidi West. “We need the housing. “There is a great benefit to the community as whole from what we are doing.”

As approved, the project includes the designation of 6.19 acres as city open space, and the remaining 4.44 designated for construction of 31 townhomes. The housing density on the developed parcel will be 7.38 houses per acre, although city Development Services staffers include the open space in their density calculations – for a density of just over 3 dwelling units per acre.

Last February, the City Council approved using $320,000 from the city’s 2006 open space bond to purchase the land from the Kolendich family. The land includes a key previously missing link in the city’s trail system along the old Milwaukee Road rail bed.

This schematic shows the layout of the Grove Street townhomes.

As they have at previous council meetings and in written comments submitted to the city, residents of the Grove Street neighborhood expressed numerous objections to the development at Monday night’s public hearing.

“All city zoning requirements state that any townhouse development must be ‘compatible with adjacent properties … such as volume and mass,’ ” said Jim Betty, who lives less than 150 feet from the proposed townhouses. “The Kolendich proposal is not anywhere near compatible with adjacent single family homes in mass, volume or density. Allowing a townhouse exemption in the middle of single family home subdivisions flies in the face of our individual property rights.”

Betty summarized the concerns of many neighbors:

“The 15 townhouses (of two homes each) will be nearly 5,000 square feet (living space and garages), which is dramatically larger than most adjacent homes,” he said. Most of the existing residences are 2,000 to 3,000 square feet in size.

The townhouse lots range from 7,000 to 9,000 square feet for the attached two homes, he added. The majority of the area’s single-family home lots range from 6,000 to 8,000 square feet per home.

So “the density being proposed is double that of existing adjacent developments,” Betty said.

He called the Grove Street townhomes “essentially a street of large duplexes, not in keeping with adjacent properties.”

Resident Morgan Hirschenberger said the townhomes are so large, and are arranged in such a way, “as to block the majority of sunlight on the north adjacent lots in winter months, and substantially limit views, open space and light.”

He asked City Council members to ask the developer to redesign the project so the smallest homes are built next to the existing houses, with the larger townhomes on the fringe. He also asked that they mandate sidewalks. The council did not change the developer’s proposal.

In a letter to council members, nearby resident Tom Orr said “the proposed building density and heights of the buildings will likely diminish my peaceful enjoyment of my backyard because the tall buildings, as proposed will be looking right down into my yard as well as the yards of the neighbors.”

In a separate letter, Sue Orr said she and her husband moved to the neighborhood a year ago. They are not opposed to building, but to the design and crowding of the townhome plan.

“The current drawings show stark white drawings of townhomes and one of the neighbors’ homes is photoshopped out of the drawing,” she said. “The density needs to be reconsidered and the traffic patterns as well. It seems there could be a better design, and color palette as well, that would better fit the neighborhood.”

All council members thanked the neighborhood residents, 15 of whom attended Monday night’s meeting, for getting involved in the process and voices their opinions.

Councilman Ramos cast the lone “no” vote on both the subdivision’s annexation and the townhome exemption allowing higher-density development.

“I support everything about this subdivision and personal property rights,” Ramos began. But to approve the development “is setting us up for a lawsuit,” he said, citing a 1974 Montana Supreme Court ruling against the city of Missoula in a similar case.

Ramos also questioned whether the Grove Street development will have any positive effect on Missoula’s dire need for more affordable housing. The townhomes will be priced at $300,000 and higher.

He attempted to send the proposal back to committee for more public input and revisions, but was overruled by all other council members.