Citing a lack of certainty, Missoula County this week denied a request to revoke zoning created specifically for a single lot in East Missoula, even though it would have brought 59 affordable housing units to the market and the possibility of greater project flexibility.

By doing so, the property will remain limited to 44 units with no ground-floor commercial. Commissioners based their decision in part on public opposition to the greater number of housing units and a lack of certainty over what could be built if the old zoning were revoked.

“I don't think this will move us in the direction we want to go,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said of the developer's request to build more units. “It's less about density and more about design standards that encourage the possibly of ground-level commercial.”

The current zoning variation was created in 2011 for the single parcel and it caps the permitted number of housing units to 44. Given that restriction, it doesn't allow room for a viable commercial opportunity on the ground floor.

But if the county had revoked the 2011 variation, the developer had pledged to include a commercial space on the ground floor, which is something both the county and the neighborhood wanted.

At the same time, however, Strohmaier and others feared that new zoning would allow a project on a larger scale, which is something the neighborhood was opposed to.

“The current zoning in place for this property limits the apartment units to 44, which is far more preferable than 59 units of single bedroom and efficiency units stumped three stories high that lends itself to being more of a transient community,” said East Missoula Community Council member Lee Bridges. “It's a load on our infrastructure and doesn't help us achieve the goals we set forth in our growth plan.”

A rendering of the project proposed if the county had lifted the old zoning placed on the parcel. (IMEG image)
A rendering of the project proposed if the county had lifted the old zoning placed on the parcel. (IMEG image)

The Consolidated Planning Board in November approved the requested revocation of old zoning, saying it would bring the property in line with surrounding zoning and allow for a greater array of uses, including more housing and the potential for ground-floor commercial.

Building to a higher density would make the resulting housing more affordable, the development team said.

“The entire character and spirit of this project is to create affordable units,” said Joe Dehnert of IMEG, which is representing the project. “They want to put forth these 59 units to make them affordable.”

Some East Missoula residents were concerned about building heights, though Dehnert said the difference between 44 units and 59 units would result in eight additional feet.

Given other structures in East Missoula, the difference was negligible, Dehnert added.

“There's examples of three-story townhouses that are near single-family residences,” Dehnert said. “From our perspective, why not make it more affordable for people who want to live in the area and make it 59 units. The developer wants the ability to exercise the right of (surrounding zoning) and enjoy the benefits others have under that zoning.”

The county's decision to deny revocation of the old zoning marks the second time in as many months it has quashed a proposal to bring additional housing units to the market. Last month, the county declined a request to develop the Larchmont Golf Course with several thousand housing units in exchange for building a new golf course nearby.

In denying it, commissioners also cited lack of certainty and directed staff instead to review all county-held land and any other assets that could be dedicated to housing.

Strohmaier said the East Missoula proposal wasn't a good fit.

“What creates true character, a sense of community and culture is not monolithic housing,” Strohmaier said. “I don't see this appreciably moving us in the direction of a neighborhood center.”