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Missoula County passes on Larchmont proposal; directs staff to inventory county land

Preserving a popular recreational site clashed with Missoula’s need for housing on Thursday, as Missoula County opened its public hearing on a proposal to move Larchmont Golf Course to a nearby location and redevelop the former property with housing.

But commissioners hedged on the proposal presented by BlueLine Development and the WGM Group, saying the golf course may not be the best option for the proposed project.

Rather, commissioners instead directed staff to complete a countywide inventory of publicly owned land to determine what else is out there and available for possible redevelopment.

“For the purpose of being as exhaustive and complete in that analysis as possible, we’re looking at every single parcel of county-owned land and evaluating it on its criteria,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We’re not going to move forward today with doing this two-phase analysis of Larchmont.”

That two-phased approach would have started with a deep dive into the Larchmont proposal to collect the facts needed to kill or pursue the idea presented by BlueLine. But that proposal wasn’t funded and commissioners in general expressed reluctance to see the Larchmont deal advance.

While the proposed land exchange and the Larchmont development could resurface down the road, it won’t happen until the county has a better understanding of its public parcels, and if any of them are suited for a project such as the one proposed by BlueLine.

“Housing is a crisis but it’s not the only value at stake,” Strohmaier said. “We’re going to be looking at the full array of values and the aspects of the resources out there.”

The land swap and development proposed by BlueLine Development.

Housing advocates urged commissioners to consider the Larchmont proposal given its potential to bring new units online, and do so in the urban core.

Under the proposal, BlueLine sought to build a new golf course one mile away and transform the old Larchmont course into a neighborhood with a target of 2,000 new homes, new medical offices and commercial opportunities.

Of the 2,000 units of proposed housing, around 800 would be single-family, owner-occupied homes built upon a community land trust to protect affordability. The project also would include 300 to 400 multi-family homes targeting less than 80% of the area median income, as well as 450 senior living homes.

“The housing crisis is by far the number one issue in the last 12 years of our shared constituents. And make no mistake, it is a crisis,” said Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula. “Affordable housing has to be a commitment by all of us. Endorsing Larchmont to go forward is a part of that.”

But the golfing community has expressed opposition to the proposal, saying it has spent decades developing the course and tending to its landscaping. At 157 acres, the publicly owned course is popular among golfers and other open-space advocates.

Bill Galiher, director of Larchmont, said moving to a new site wouldn’t be fair to those who helped develop the course over the years.

“How do you replace that stuff? It’s not even possible,” Galiher said. “We’re concerned we’re not going to have a golf course that’s playable for the eight months we do get to play each year.”

The county has suggested that housing is a crisis and needs an all-hands-on-deck approach to solutions, though some questioned the county’s sincerity given the outcome of Thursday’s hearing.

Commissioners countered that criticism by noting the time, funding and work that’s taking place to lay the infrastructure in the Sxwtpqyen area (Mullan), to support an estimated 6,000 new housing units over the coming years.

A rendering of the development proposed at Larchmont.

Further west, the county also is preparing as development moves toward the Wye. A number of sizable subdivisions are taking place in the area that will provide around 617 units once developed. The area currently lacks a plan to guide that growth, though commissioners said it’s in the works.

“Rather than continuing a protracted and highly contentious discussion (on Larchmont), we have other irons in the fire,” Strohmaier said. “The Sxwtpqyen area is an example of a big, bold project that’s going to deliver many housing units way quicker than (Larchmont) ever will. We have additional housing stock we’ve invested a great amount of time and energy to.”

Economists have suggested that Missoula’s housing challenges could hinder economic growth as workers struggle to find or afford housing. Businesses have found it difficult to recruit and retain workers, and the lack of a healthy housing inventory has played a hand in rising prices.

“I’m afraid there’s a concern out there that we’re not aware of this housing crisis and we’re not pushing to get more units on the ground,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “Between Sxwtpqyen and the Wye, there’s 6,000 plus units in the works. The addition to supply is happening, and it’s happening unfortunately at the pace it takes to build these things. All of this takes time.”

Slotnick and Commissioner Juanita Vero agreed that the proper first step before considering the Larchmont proposal was to first see what else is available, and if it could be used for housing.

“If we’re in this space where we’re considering divesting public land for development, we’re going to choose the best public land,” Slotnick said.