City Council moves South Hills townhome project as frustration mounts; debate lingers
After nearly a year, a townhome development proposed for Missoula’s South Hills was pushed from committee on Wednesday after members of the City Council added a number of new conditions.
But council members expect to see the Hillview Crossing proposal back before the Land Use and Planning Committee in a matter of weeks, as several issues continue to linger.
The full council is set to discuss the proposal on Oct. 25.
“Everything we’ve done to this point is open for reconsideration, though hopefully the time we’ve spent means something,” said committee chair John DiBari. “There’s going to be a number of things that are going to come back.”
Conditions approved during Wednesday’s three-hour hearing included a more robust trail system to address safe routes to school, and a “no build” easement to create a visible break between homes.
While developers agreed to the changes, they expressed frustration with the process.
“This process has had a lot of unclarity,” said Jason Rice of Territorial Landworks, representing Hillview Crossing LLC. “What we’ve done is the best we could within the standards presented to us. There’s just no easy places to develop anymore, and we do the best that we can.”
The Hillview Crossing project proposes 64 housing units in 32 townhomes on the South Hills. Members of the Land Use and Planning Committee first considered the project last year and initially approved it for a hearing before the City Council.
While the project was recommended for approval by Development Services last year, it was sent back to committee in December, where it has languished for the past 11 months. Over that time, the committee has debated a wide range of issues, from runoff to block lengths to trails and soil engineering.
Some of those issues resurfaced again on Wednesday, despite having been resolved earlier this year.
“I understand the topographic constraints,” said council member Stacie Anderson, referring to the slope. “But I still think this does not address the fact that on this hillside, there’s going to be a monolith of homes more than three blocks long with no break. There needs to be a more traditional break to get at the spirit of what the statute intended.”
At the council’s urging, engineers agreed to revisit the project’s layout to create wider easements within the development. Even so, several council members expressed frustration with the process, suggesting the council was “designing by committee.”
“Every time we meet, it is costing the project, the development, more money, which in effect increases the price tag of each and every one of these buildings,” said council member Heather Harp. “And yet, we have the public duty to make sure that we do our very best to create a design that’s amenable to as many folks as possible.”
Wednesday’s hearing began with a review of school routes and student safety, though it soon slid toward other topics.
Terry Phelan, transportation coordinator for Missoula County Public Schools, said the proposed development sits within walking distance to the nearest elementary school, making it feasible for students to walk to class.
Placing a bus stop on Hillview Way could be problematic given the grade of the road, the lack of sidewalks, and the challenges presented during winter months.
“Stopping in the middle of Hillview at that point is a concern,” said Phelan. “We basically came to the conclusion that the established bus stop at the corner of 39th and Arrowhead is the closest, safest current bus stop that’s accessible by students in this proposed neighborhood.”
But the downhill trail proposed with the project could be a challenge during winter, some feared. To accommodate seasonal maintenance needs, council members asked Development Services to look at a wider paved pathway.
In exchange, the committee backed off other internal pathways, including a previous condition calling for the construction of a lengthy staircase running through the project.
“We should draw the line when it’s our responsibility to do something and when it’s the responsibility of the people who purchase something,” said council member Jess Ramos. “The market will figure this out. The staircase in my opinion is going a little too far.”
The City Council will take the project up on Oct. 25, though it’s likely it will send it back to committee for more discussion.
“You spend two years designing the project where everybody agrees and meets the rules,” said Alan McCormick, an attorney representing Hillview Crossing LLC. “This got a recommendation for approval from (city) staff last December, and all of a sudden you get into this process and the rules mean nothing.”
DiBari said the city was doing its due diligence.
“There’s a set of challenges in everything we’ve dealt with on this site, and we’re trying to hack our way through that,” he said.