Frustration mounts as South Hills housing proposal languishes on city docket

The Hillview Crossing housing development would include 64 units in 32 townhomes proposed for the empty field pictured in lower center of this photo. After nearly a year of debate, the Missoula City Council will consider the project next Monday night. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

After nearly 12 months of discussion and with nearly three dozen conditions set in place, the Missoula City Council will finally consider a South Hills housing project next Monday night.

But it’s also possible the Hillview Way townhome development could go back to committee after new debate surfaced on Wednesday over road widths, whether they should be public or private, and who will tackle long-term maintenance.

The debate caught some by surprise and all the options offer pros and cons. But in the end, the city has expressed reluctance over maintaining the streets if they become public, citing slope and design.

“Because of the slope on the hillside, these would become Priority One routes for snow plowing,” said assistant city engineer Troy Monroe. “Staff is reluctant to take on those particular roads.”

The Hillview Crossing townhome development would include 64 dwelling units in 32 structures. It first went before the council last December and has stumbled forward in fits and starts ever since.

Of the 30 conditions placed upon the project, the roads within the development continue to remain an issue. That has frustrated developers, who said the city agreed to 28-foot roads in their initial talks, only to change them to 35 feet later on.

The wider roads would add expense to the project and increase the cost of each unit by roughly $1,900. It could also increase the amount of stormwater runoff by expanding the impervious surface, though they would make fire access easier.

While the city could still consider 28-foot roads with restricted parking, it would require someone to enforce that parking. It would also require each housing unit to include sprinkler systems, adding nearly $8,000 to the cost of each unit.

“The sprinkler thing, I hadn’t heard anything about it before I read it on the agenda. That’s a huge cost to add to the homeowners,” said council member Jesse Ramos. “We just found out it was going to be $8,000 per home, and here we sit around talking about affordable housing all the time. This has been a cluster – horribly embarrassing to the city.”

Others expressed frustrations as well, though city staff and some council members said the project should have been presented as a subdivision, not a townhome exemption development, or TED. It was also presented under old city rules, which has led to added complications, according to some.

While the development team has accused the city of changing its rules along the way, several council members disagreed, including John DiBari.

“I think it’s a misrepresentation to say the rules have been changing,” he said. “This has always been a fluid process. I think we’ve done as good a job as we can. We just are where we are.”

Hillview Crossing

After more than two hours of discussion Wednesday, council members settled on a possible remedy. It could include three options, including a 35-foot private road in a public access easement.

The other two options include a 28-foot private road in a public access easement with sprinklers, or dedication of public right of way with a development agreement, which must be approved by city staff.

It’s unknown if those conditions will pass on Monday night, when the project is set for a vote. The project could get kicked back to committee for further debate, pushing the project to the one-year mark since it was first proposed.

The options also have some council members asking if the city can trust the future homeowners association to conduct maintenance and enforce parking restrictions if a 28-foot road were permitted and was kept private.

“The thing that concerns me with this type of agreement is that it relies on the homeowners association being around and viable forever,” said DiBari. “It provides risk to the city to rely on the homeowners association to collect the required fees and do that maintenance.”

The development team, which has invested tens of thousands of dollars in the project thus far, expressed continued frustration with the city’s process. Over the past year, they have accused the city of changing its rules and expectations midstream.

“It was very clear during those (early) meetings that the homeowners would be the one to maintain that (road),” said Allan McCormick, representing the developers. “What happened to us in the last couple weeks is that the rules changed again. We had an agreement with the fire department that it would be 28-foot roads.”

Residents are currently collecting petitions in an effort to legally protest the project. As they have for the past year, several property owners maintained their concerns over the project’s potential impacts, from increased traffic to stormwater runoff.

They also pushed back on accusations of a “not in my backyard” mentality, resistant to any change.

“I find that very insulting,” said Karen Henrikson. “No one I have talked with, and I’ve talked with quite a few people, has indicated that a NIMBY attitude is any part of their issues. The only thing I don’t want in my backyard is flooding from runoff and dirt related to earth movement or mud flow.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at martin@missoulacurrent.com