A number of Mullan-area subdivisions are providing Missoula with needed housing, but area schools may be nearing capacity

Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A proposed 600-unit subdivision got its first hearing before the Missoula City Council on Wednesday, kicking off a process that's expected to last several weeks.

As proposed, Icon Apartments would include 614 residential units in a range of building styles including row houses, mansion apartments and others. It will sit on 44 acres and likely be annexed into the city upon approval.

While price points haven't been set, Will Ralph of Braxton Development said units will average around 1,100 square feet and sit near the top of the market when it comes to quality.

The development will also include a range of amenities include commercial space and a clubhouse with a pool, fitness room, hot tub, yoga studio and co-working spaces. Ralph said it will cater to young professionals and empty nesters.

“We believe in providing significant outdoor amenities for our tenants,” said Ralph. “We feel this product will be well received here. We've developed in other locations in Montana and they've been well received.”

Icon Apartments is one of several projects planned for the Swxtpqyen Neighborhood. The city and county have designated the area for urban growth and have already installed more than $15 million in infrastructure to help attract and guide it.

But now that housing is moving in, concerns over the capacity of neighborhood schools have emerged.

“Projects of this magnitude directly impact our school district,” said Molly Blakely, superintendent of Hellgate School. “It impacts facilities, it impacts transportation, it impacts the addition of busing routes, and it impacts safe routes for children to walk and bike to school.”

So far this year, the city has already approved two adjoining projects off Flynn Lane, including West End Homes, which will provide 260 residential units, and Sapphire Place, which includes 300 units.

Next week, another subdivision providing 152 units will go before council. If approved, Icon Apartments would add another 614 units.

Together, such projects unfolding in the greater Mullan area are beginning to provide needed housing. Missoula has for years faced a housing shortage, which in part has driven home values and rents to record highs.

But growth brings other issues, including a potential impact on schools. State law limits how much weight a city can place on schools when reviewing a project, according to city planner Dave DeGrandpre. Collecting impact fees from new growth for schools may also be illegal.

“We can't deny a subdivision based solely on impacts to schools,” he said. “There are some very specific parameters. The Legislature doesn't allow us to create impact fees for schools. We're limited on those rules.”

The city and county, along with a wide delegation of Missoula representatives, lobbied for and received a $13 million federal BUILD grant in 2019 to begin laying infrastructure in the greater Mullan area. The region, located west of Reserve Street, was identified as a logical place for urban development.

When planning the infrastructure, city and county officials estimated that the area would accommodate more than 6,000 residents and support hundreds of jobs. That projection is coming to fruition and providing housing in the process.

But several City Council members agreed that a discussion on schools and the needs of the area's new residents will need to be addressed.

“The city got the BUILD grant with the county and has invested a lot of resources into the infrastructure out there to attract housing,” said council member Mike Nugent. “The developers are doing what the city has asked them to do. If there's a failure on planning, I don't put that on the developers who are following the process that has been laid out. But (schools) are something we need to look at a little closer.”