Missoula planning staff cautions City Council: Development decisions guided by law, not bias

Members of the City Council and city staff cautioned a few of their peers on Wednesday from requesting information on developers, including their home location, when it’s not part of the state and local regulations that guide decisions on zoning requests and applications for development.

The issue hasn’t surfaced during City Council discussions in recent years, at least until Wednesday when one member of City Council asked city staff for more information on the Limited Liability Company behind a 19-unit housing project on River Road.

“I’m curious as to the name of the company of the developers that are looking at the site, and if there’s any research on the cost of similar projects they’ve done in the past,” asked Ward 3 council member Daniel Carlino, who suggested it could lend insight to the project’s affordability.

But Carlino’s request for information on the developers prompted comments from other council members and caution from city staff on the laws that regulate and guide the city’s decisions on such projects.

Straying from those regulations and basing decision on a developer’s home base or other factors could lead the city to a lawsuit given that the information isn’t required by law and could open perceptions of bias.

“I want to be careful we’re not going down a path on this stuff that’s not a relevant criterion,” said council member Mike Nugent.

Council member Heidi West offered similar caution.

“It’s a very normal process to form an LLC to develop a property because it insulates the owner from potential bad outcomes,” West said. “You can’t just make assumptions on where they come from when making a decision.”

Most large projects in Missoula have taken place under an LLC, including the city’s recent number of affordable housing projects, such as those on Scott Street and West Broadway.

City planning director Mary McRae said the zoning and subdivision regulations that come before the city are based on “facts on the land,” not who is doing the development or where their business is based.

Anything outside the scope of law would be illegal.

“We really have to look just at what they’re suggesting, that if it’s a rezone that it complies with the growth policy, and for subdivision that it complies with our subdivision regulations and state law,” said McRae. “That’s what we’re required to base decisions on, and that’s what council is required to base its decisions on.”

The project, represented by the IMEG Corp. in Missoula, cleared the planning board last month on an 8-1 vote. The board generally agreed that the property was suitable for the project and that it met city policies.

The City Council is expected to consider the request next Monday. It has held the proposal in committee now for several weeks. If approved, the rezone request would allow 19 homes on the property over the currently permitted 10. The difference could dictate the final cost of the product, project representatives said.

“Based upon what’s economically feasible given the infrastructure costs, they decided this was the most feasible approach,” said Joe Dehnert with IMEQ. “The limiting conditions of the site, combined with the feasibility of the subdivision – to not have the costs be astronomical and the homes unsellable outside a few select parties – is what’s really driving this request.”