Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A Lower Miller Creek subdivision proposal made its debut before the Missoula City Council on Wednesday, with much of the conversation falling on traffic and the state's broad definition of a group home.

The Riverfront Trails subdivision is planned on 92 acres off Old Bitterroot and Lower Miller Creek roads. But of those 92 acres, 44 would serve as open space and provide public access to the Bitterroot River.

The Consolidated City-County Planning Board recommended approval last month and praised the project for its design, mix of housing types and protection of riverfront habitat. The city planning department also has recommended approval.

“Overall, the ... amendment would allow for a rezoning and subdivision that meets the goals of the Lower Miller Creek plan and growth policy by clustering housing outside of an environmentally sensitive area while providing a mix of housing types,” said city planner Cassie Tripard. “There is a public need for more housing, a diverse mix of housing types, and protection of the floodplain that creates public river access.”

As proposed, the project would include single-family housing, and duplexes and townhouses at a density of roughly eight units per acre.

Current zoning would allow for slightly more than 179 units on the entire 92 acres. But the requested rezone would create 176 lots in a smaller area while preserving 44 acres for open space and wooded habitat.

The zoning change would also create three small lots with building heights up to 45 feet. Those lots are identified as religious assembly and group living. The latter proposal raised several questions that didn't come with many answers, including what sort of “group living” the plan envisioned.

But during last month's planning board hearing, project representative Allison Mouch said the group home would be a senior living center – a concept that helped drive the design of the entire project, she said.

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Its proximity to Jeanette Rankin Elementary School is seen as an added bonus that opens up opportunities for generational programs. State law also permits group homes by right, according to City Attorney Jim Nugent.

“The state Legislature has identified a list of what it considers to be community residential facilities or group homes,” Nugent said. “They are specifically authorized to be in any residential area in the entire state of Montana. The state Legislature has imposed its will on all residential neighborhoods in the entire state.”

Nugent said a prior Missoula City Council attempted to challenge the law and lost its case before the Montana Supreme Court. In doing so, it was stuck with high costs and attorney fees.

“We've had several times over the years where people have tried to prevent group homes in the City of Missoula and they can't do that,” Nugent added. “Montana state law specifically allows them in any residential zone, and idolizes the ones that are allowed.”

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Like nearly all subdivision proposals in Missoula, the Riverfront Trails proposal is no different when drawing out neighborhood concerns over traffic and other features.

One woman lamented the 45-foot building height, saying a roughly four-story building didn't fit with the neighborhood character. Area resident Doug Odegaard, who is also a Mountain Line board member, said two project elements have him concerned, including traffic and the absence of commercial opportunities.

“The mixed-use in my opinion should benefit the neighborhood,” Odegaard added. “A good use of mixed uses would be having something that reduces traffic and car use. I believe that commercial needs to be part of this. We need something that prevents people from having to drive into town.”

The property lies half in the city and half in the county, though the developers are seeking annexation and a zoning change. A slight boundary modification would also be made to separate the area to be preserved as open space and that slated for development.

“Since the subdivision proposes to dedicate 24 acres of parkland to the city, this parkland would be publicly accessible, preserves the floodplain and includes the entire Bitterroot River frontage along the property,” said Tripard.

Another 19 acres would serve as a common area and be maintained by the homeowners' association. The plan also includes trails and public access.