For the first time since April, members of the Missoula City Council revisited a South Hills subdivision on Wednesday, a process that’s languished since the start of the year in debate, requirements and shifting amendments.
The Land Use and Planning Committee intended to find a clear path forward during Wednesday’s session. But it failed to do so, leaving both developers and residents frustrated with the process.
“It’s like someone spilled the game board,” said resident Theresa Jacobs.
The project, proposed by Hillview Crossing LLC, went before the committee back in January. It was scrutinized in several subsequent hearings, each resulting in new conditions placed upon the project.
The development never received a vote, and on Wednesday it ran into many of the same issues debated by committee members over the past year, including a pedestrian pathway, road widths, stormwater and a geotechnical report.
“We have a responsibility here to go one way or another on this,” said Mayor John Engen, who rarely weighs in on issues at the committee level. “This has been a lengthy process, and I would suggest it has to come to an end one way or another for everyone’s sake, including the city of Missoula.”
The developers propose building a 68-unit townhome project on a vacant lot located in the South Hills. But some neighboring residents have raised concerns over access, runoff and liability, among other issues.
The committee has struggled to address those concerns while simultaneously moving the project through the process in a timely manner. Opponents have accused the city of rushing the process while developers contend the process has been inherently unfair.
“It’s a subdivision dressed up as a Townhome Exemption Development, and I think we all see that,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “We’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole here, and that’s what’s causing a lot of the confusion and dilemma.”
Developers attempted to address the committee’s questions during public comment, though Allan McCormick, a project representative, wasn’t permitted to finish his statement. Opponents also spoke at length, some more than once, and they were given time to make full remarks.
In the time McCormick was given, he described the committee’s scrutiny as unprecedented when compared to other Missoula housing projects. The requirements placed upon the proposal amounted to what he described as a prerequisite to receiving a vote.
McCormick said that runs contrary to city ordinance and could lead to a lawsuit.
“The idea there isn’t substantial geotech and stormwater information in this record is a false narrative,” McCormick said. “There is as much or more than you’d get in a subdivision approval. There are hundreds and hundreds of homes right next to this project that are built on the same soils, the same slopes, the same conditions.”
The committee made some headway Wednesday after three hours of debate by resolving two issues, including trails and when a geotech report must be presented for approval. It didn’t reach discussions on other proposed amendments, including road widths.
Council member John DiBari set another three-hour hearing for next month, saying he hoped it would reach a conclusion.
“I don’t think it’s fair to characterize that we’re trying to kill this project,” said DiBari. “We’ve been working diligently from Day One to try to clear a path forward for the development team and all along the way recognizing what our responsibilities are in being responsive to all the comment provided by staff agencies and the public.”