Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The consolidated planning board recommended approval of a subdivision west of Frenchtown last week, clearing the way for Missoula County to make a final decision in the coming weeks.

The Elk Valley Ranch Subdivision, proposed by JLL Investments near Huson, would provide 14 homes on 32 acres north of Instate 90 and Frontage Road. While the project raised concerns over impacts to wildlife, water resources and open space, among other things, county planners offered a number of conditions intended to soften the project's impacts.

“We do expect some impact to the natural environment – wildlife and wildlife habitat,” said county planner Tim Worley. “Ultimately, our conclusion is that significant adverse impacts have been mitigated either with the subdivision design or the recommended conditions of approval.”

Among other things, the conditions would set portions of the 32-acre parcel off limits to development, thus preserving the hillsides and what formerly served as a hay field. It also requires wildlife-friendly fencing and bear-proof trash bins.

The development would also be limited on its water use by keeping the production of 14 wells under 10-acre feet. Worley said water use would be monitored and reported.

“As a result, we're recommending monitored use of the wells through metering each well,” he said. “It would require reporting to occur on an annual basis to both the planning office and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.”

Changes made by the state Legislature restrict certain factors from being considered in such projects, including the value of agricultural soils. State law no longer allows soils to be weighed in the decision, a move local planners and elected officials have described as short-sighted.

However, the project looks to cluster the 14 housing lots, helping preserve some agricultural soil.

“I totally get some of the constraints of the design and to preserve the land on the hillsides. But this doesn't mitigate for the loss of that haying ground,” said Ellie Costello, a member of the planning board.

“We should just be honest about that and not paint over the choices we're making. To cluster out in this area does feel out of character, even through that would be a great solution to this agricultural challenge we're seeing. I hope to see more of that.”

The planning board recommended the project's approval on a 5-2 vote. The county's planning department also has recommended approval, and commissioners will consider the project in the coming weeks.

“We didn't feel like this was a subdivision that had impacts worthy of recommending denial,” said Worley. “State law is pretty clear that the governing body cannot deny or impose conditions on a subdivision based solely on the growth policy.”