State law prohibits the City of Missoula from placing conditions upon a development and withdrawing legal zoning simply because some residents are upset with the project, let alone the character of one of its investors, city officials said Monday.

In recent days, some residents took to social media to condemn Aaron Wagner, an investor in a private multi-million project proposed for Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula, for comments he made toward some residents who have been outwardly critical of redevelopment and resistant toward change.

Wagner has since apologized.

The property in question, located on the site of the Missoulian newspaper's former printing press, is privately owned and was listed for $8.5 million in a deal that allegedly closed last week. Thus far, the developers have not sought any assistance from the city for demolition or redevelopment.

“There's been considerable adieu associated with a person who's among the investors in the project slated for the old Missoulian property,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said Monday. “I can tell you neither I nor the (City) Council gets to pick who does development. That's a function of state law and private property rights.”

The publicly-formed vision for the Hip Strip as depicted in the Downtown Master Plan.
The publicly-formed vision for the Hip Strip as depicted in the Downtown Master Plan.

Lee Enterprises, who owned the property and the Missoulian newspaper, sought a zoning change back in August ahead of the sale. The old zoning was created in the 1980s specifically to house the newspaper and its printing press.

That former zoning didn't align with current zoning that applies to the rest of the district, which is considered downtown – a fact that limited the property's uses. The Missoula Consolidated Planning Board approved Lee Enterprise's requested rezone in September and the Missoula City Council did the same in October.

While some residents have lamented the proposed changes to the underutilized site, the City Council remains guided by Montana law. Under state law, the city cannot place conditions upon a rezone, such as a required use or a mandate for affordable housing.

But state law isn't good enough for some critics.

“It's a lack of community control over real estate investment,” Nathan Stephens told the City Council on Monday. “We're going to allow them (the developers) to build here? It's wrong and you know it. Do something.”

Opponents have waged a small social media campaign in recent days pushing to stop the development. Among them, the area's newly elected member to the City Council, Daniel Carlino, has posted misleading information on social media suggesting the project could be stopped.

In a tweet, he suggested “our community can stop this wave of gentrification.” Carlino, who has not been sworn into office but claims on his Twitter account to already represent Ward 3, included the mayor's office number and the email contact of the developer in an attempt to drum up opposition to the project ahead of Monday night.

A Missoula City Council member elect, who hasn't been sworn into office, is pushing to stop the proposed project on Higgins Avenue.
A Missoula City Council member elect, who hasn't been sworn into office, is pushing to stop the proposed project on Higgins Avenue.

Engen on Monday said state law – not emotions – guide the city's decisions.

“Rezoning of that property has been done. The prior zoning only allowed for a newspaper to operate at that site. When the council approved new zoning, it created opportunities for redevelopment,” Engen said.

“The council's decision wasn't based on who might be the developer,” he added. “That was largely unknown at that time, nor frankly should it have an affect on their decision. I can't tell you if the transaction is done or whether the gentlemen whose remarks created upset will complete a project there.”

In other projects that do seek public assistance, such as tax increment or vacation of the public right-of-way, the city has worked with the developer to make inclusions that offer public benefits, such as affordable housing.

In a nearby condominium project that sought a small vacation of public right-of-way, the city required that 20% of the development be dedicated to affordable housing for those earning 120% of the area median income. The city also has worked with other developers that have purchased city-owned land, giving city officials a tool to affect a certain outcome.

But in this case, at least, the Higgins Avenue project is privately funded, is taking place on private property, and adheres to all city regulations.

“If there is public investment of any form, the city and I will do our best to find a public benefit there,” Engen said. “If that doesn't exist, we likely wouldn't invest in that. But our ability to shape this project, to provide affordability and affect design beyond what's on the books today in zoning, is limited.”

More From Missoula Current