Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) City planners and legal officials advised members of the City Council this week that if a development project meets state and local laws around planning, zoning and growth, denying it based on personal opinions would open the city to a lawsuit.

Braxton Development is proposing 614 residential units on 44 acres in the Sxwtpqyen neighborhood, where the city and county have invested roughly $15 million to lay the basic infrastructure needed to guide growth.

The area was identified years ago as a logical place to extend urban development and meet the city's acute need for additional housing. But now that development is moving in, some have lamented that growth is happening too quickly.

However, that's not a concern that can be used to approve or deny a development, officials said.

“If we start saying no to things that meet our criteria, we'll very likely be opening ourselves to a lawsuit,” City Attorney Ryan Sudbury warned council members.

As proposed, Icon Apartments will include 614 residential units and two clubhouses constructed in two phases. Phase I isn't likely to begin until the first quarter of 2025 and the entire project won't likely be completed until well after 2030.

The project is one of many approved or proposed in the greater Mullan area, and it meets city zoning and lies in an area identified for growth. It also meets all the criteria for annexation down the road. Denying Icon Apartments and other projects proposed in the area based on a lark could open the city to legal trouble.

“The law is intended to be applied fairly and consistently with the clear plan you've made as a community about where and how you'd like to grow,” said city planner Dave DeGrandpre. “The rules need to be applied fairly and consistently.”

Some also have expressed concern about growth paying for itself. In the case of Icon Apartments and other projects in the area, DeGrandpre said they are. Developers are required to design and install their own infrastructure, and they also pay impact fees to fund the necessary city services, including police and fire.

The proposed layout of Icon Apartments.
The proposed layout of Icon Apartments.

The City Council also has adopted a special transportation impact fee for new development in the Sxwtpqyen area to recover funding it invested into the area's basic infrastructure.

“The city and the county have been planning for development here for over half a decade,” said DeGrandpre. “There are special impact fees to ensure services are feasible.”

When the project was initially proposed, it didn't include any retail offerings – something the city was hoping to see in the area as it developed. However, Braxton Development has set aside an acre to accommodate future commercial amenities, such as a market or a coffee shop.

While it's too soon to say what amenities will be offered, Will Ralph with Braxton Development said that whatever lands in the project would be intended to benefit the neighborhood.

“We would hold title to those as part of this development,” said Ralph. “Our goals are in alignment with the city's that we want something there that's going to enhance the area for our tenants and (the neighborhood). We're not intending to build a Taco Bell or a gas station.”

The City Council will consider the project on Monday night.