City Council nixes Grant Creek rezone request for more housing

The Missoula City Council on Monday night denied a rezone request off Interstate 90 in lower Grant Creek, making the neighborhood the first in recent memory to successfully rally against a project.

The request would have allowed developers to increase the number of housing units on the 44-acre lot from 494 up to 1,185 units. Developers said they never planned the maximum number of units but needed greater flexibility to work around the property’s constraints.

In its 5-7 decision, councilors expressed concerns over safety amid wildfires and how residents would navigate Grant Creek if the population “nearly tripled” in a neighborhood that currently has just 600 homes, according to council member Stacy Anderson.

“Even without the rezone, you are practically doubling the entire population of the neighborhood,” Anderson said. “No other project has had that substantial impact on a neighborhood. I think that’s really important to highlight. As it stands now, there’s already the ability to have significant growth and development there.”

While the property sits within view of I-90 and includes a former gravel pit, the potential population growth raised concerns over evacuations during a fire, as the Grant Creek area has just a single exit. In case of fire, first responders said they could control the intersection to allow for a timely evacuation.

But council member Amber Sherrill said there needed to be a specific plan, and the current plan didn’t meet the single exit in Grant Creek.

“While I understand we have a need for housing, I also believe that we are first and foremost tasked with public safety,” Sherrill said. “We are seeing wildfire behavior that continues to become more extreme. It’s becoming hotter. It’s moving faster. The 2005 Community Wildfire Protection Plan determined that the egress was a problem and listed Grant Creek as one of the top priorities for wildfire risk. We can’t more than double the population, do some improvements on the road and say that that (risk) no longer exists.”

Council members in favor of the rezone noted the city’s undeniable need for more housing as Missoula continues to grow. Council members Heather Harp, Bryan von Lossberg, Julie Merritt, Jesse Ramos and Sandra Vasecka voted for the rezone, which needed a super majority to pass given a petition drive held by Grant Creek residents.

City Council President von Lossberg said he was troubled by the “legitimate concerns” around fire, traffic and whether proper procedures were followed in creating the zoning. Despite his concerns, he said the rezone request to raise the potential height of a building by 10 feet would provide additional flexibility in the area.

The area is currently home to a former gravel pit and several hotels.

“I reluctantly support the motion,” von Lossberg said. “I acknowledge the concerns the others have raised, but if anything, this highlights our need to take a deeper look at this.”

The City Council’s denial of the rezone aligns with an August vote by the Consolidated Planning Board, which also rejected the request. But the council’s vote ran contrary to the recommendations of Development Services and the Office on Housing and Community Development, which both supported the rezone.

Council member Mirtha Becerra said the rezone failed to meet the needs outlined by the city growth policy and environmental restoration plans regarding public health and safety. She said it would encourage more motorized travel than other non-motorized forms that the city encourages.

“So if we are committed to working and advancing all these goals, why should we consider adding 1,185 units, which more than doubles the current population of the area?” Becerra said. “And that’s more than 5,000 trips to a neighborhood that has one way in and one way out with no transit alternative and no safe non-motorized transportation option.”

Council member Heather Harp voted in favor of the rezone, saying the city is growing by 2.2% percent every year and needed 850 new housing units annually to keep pace. But the projects that come through the city are “woefully short” of that figure.

The lack of housing plays a role in driving up costs as demand outpaces supply.

“Since I was elected to council two and a half years ago, every single development that has come to our floor is contentious,” Harp said. “Neighbors resist change that happens in their backyard, and rightfully so, because we oftentimes have a fear of what may be coming, and I get that. And yet, Missoula recognizes that the quality of life continues to attract people here . . . We only have so much land in order to develop, and we have to be smart about it.”

Council member Jordan Hess described Missoula’s growth policy as the “North Star” guiding the city’s decisions. And while he wanted to vote in favor of the rezone, he said it was inconsistent with the growth policy. He said the rezone was a far less suitable option than other possibilities for the site.

“The main concern for me is that I don’t believe we can adequately evaluate the impacts of this proposed rezone based on the parcel size and that a major portion of this rezone has steep slopes,” Hess said.