With the statutory deadline approaching, Missoula County commissioners last week were set to deny a 14-lot subdivision in the Target Range neighborhood before they agreed to postpone their vote until early December.
Frustrated by the process and lack of guidance, the developers accused the county of being unclear in its subdivision regulations as they relate to mitigation and farm land. Commissioners expressed equal frustration with state law.
As proposed, commissioners said that current plans for the McCauley Meadows subdivision, proposed by Tai Tam LLC, will negatively impact bird habitat and prime agricultural soils. It was enough to lead them toward denying the project.
“I feel like staff recommendations and finding of facts, and conclusions of law are fairly solid,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “It’s a better design than what’s come before us previously, but I think that when weighed in the balance, it’s still wanting when it comes to the amount of mitigation for prime agricultural lands and soils.”
An earlier version of the project was denied around two years ago, and the developers attempted to mitigate a number of concerns expressed at the time. Among them, they reduced the number of lots to 14 and increased the size of an easement dedicate to agriculture to 3.5 acres.
Representatives of the developer expressed frustration with the county and what they see as a lack of guidance. That leaves developers guessing as to what the county’s expectations actually are, they said.
“I’m looking for guidance – there is no guidance,” said John Kellogg. “What more are we supposed to do? We’ve gone to a great extent to come up with mitigation. We comply with the rules and we comply with the zoning. You’ve got an applicant that’s compliant and has gone through the process.”
As proposed, the project would partially sit on level ground prized for its agricultural soils at the base of McCauley Butte. A number of lots would also sit on the slope at the base of the butte, requiring road work and grading.
The subdivision would abut a 278-acre conservation easement placed on McCauley Butte. The Consolidated Planning Board recommended the project be denied back in early October.
But the subdivision has been years in the making and commissioners acknowledged flaws in the system. They also expressed frustration with the process and the position it leaves them in.
“It’s unfortunate the hand we’ve been dealt by state law in the subdivision and platting act that leaves the governing body at the very tail of the process here,” Strohmaier said. “Us being involved at the very end of the process leaves no opportunity by much in the way of dialogue at the decision points in planning to get here.”
Developers said they’re unlikely to submit a new application given the lack of clarity by the county. Commissioners urged the development community to help make the county’s regulatory language clearer.
“I would hope the development community would get behind another run at the subdivision regulations to more clearly articulate this,” Strohmaier said. “I don’t like being in the position late in the day at the 11th hour to only now express to applicants who have invested significant time and money into these projects that this is not what the governing body really had in mind.
“It’s not as clear cut as one would like. I can’t deny that.”