Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) After an eight-hour hearing, the Missoula City Council on Thursday upheld the Historic Preservation Commission's denial of a permit to a Fort Missoula property owner who intended to build housing to fund the restoration of a historic building.

In a process that played out akin to a trial, the majority of council agreed that the developer, Tres Birds, failed to demonstrate that its application didn't receive a fair review and that the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) acted in bias when denying the permit.

The vote to uphold the HPC's denial of the permit passed on a 7-4 vote.

“I do not feel that the (developer) has proven error on behalf of the HPC,” said council member Mike Nugent. “I do have some concern of how our HPC makes decisions, but I don't know that it's possible to have a black-and-white checklist for historic preservation.”

Representatives with Tres Birds said they've been attempting to navigate the city's historic preservation process for years with no clear guidance and little feedback during the review of their application.

Tres Birds secured legal representation last July and filed an appeal after the HPC denied their permit to build 16 townhomes on private property at Fort Missoula.

The firm planned to use the revenue from the housing project to fund the restoration of the Old Post Hospital – a historic structure built in 1911 that played a prominent role in Fort Missoula's era as a World War II internment camp.

However, the hospital has fallen into ruin and will cost an estimated $7 million or more to restore. While some saw the housing project as an acceptable means to fund restoration, others opposed any changes to the historic district.

While housing was outside the purview of the City Council's decision, a majority found that Tres Birds had failed to prove that it didn't get a fair review from the HPC and that the commission's decision was rooted in bias.

“The decision before us today is not whether we think housing should be part of the development at the fort or not,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “What's before us today is whether we agree that the HPC followed the process they have to make these decisions, and whether that was done properly or not.”

The interior of the Old Post Hospital at Fort Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
The interior of the Old Post Hospital at Fort Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While seven members of council upheld the HPC's decision, four others believe it relied upon subjective terms when denying the permit and therefore, it denied the permit in error.

Among other things, the HPC based its denial in part on the proposed development's sight lines, opinions on open space, fears of reducing the “prominence” of the hospital, and one's perspective of color and materials.

Council member Amber Sherill joined three others in calling such terms subjective.

“I disagree with the HPC's statement that (the hospital) would be reduced to a secondary position. The scale, size and mass, based on what we're looking at and where the public would be viewing the building from on public space, doesn't diminish its prominence,” said Sherrill. “The sightlines are still going to be there. The only consideration for sightlines should be from public property. If you're on that piece of private property, I don't think we should be able to regulate that.”

Council members Kristen Jordan, Bob Campbell and Sandra Vasecka agreed in finding that the HPC had erred in denying the permit. They also agreed that private property rights had been neglected in the discussion.

“I respectfully disagree with the notion that the hospital will be relegated to a secondary position on the parcel,” said Vasecka. “Rather than insisting on uniformity, we should consider the harmonious coexistence of tradition and progress. Rather than detracting, it can enrich the fort's character, ensuring that history and innovation walk hand in hand.”

Public comment offered on Thursday was largely opposed to the development. Many argued in opposition to change, the placement of housing at the fort, or the loss of open space, among other things.

Several also took aim at the developer. Doing so has become a common practice by opponents of growth in Missoula. Some also said the outcome of the project represented a case of “buyer beware."

“I'm sorry this developer bought this piece of property when he knew how contentious this issue would be,” said one opponent. “You have to follow the rules and the guidelines we've set, and it doesn't seem this developer has done that.”