Facing a state deadline, the Missoula City Council on Monday night easily overcame a neighborhood petition and approved a 19-lot subdivision on River Road.

It took the council more than two hours and a bathroom break to debate 19 lots, even after weeks of previous discussion. Some acknowledged the city's housing pinch and some never mentioned it.

The Legislature's recall of a voter approved gas tax also played into the equation, as the revenue could have been earmarked to make needed improvements to River Road, along with streets throughout the city with the same needs.

But that revenue is no longer available, even as housing demand surges.

“I know it's a big change going from an empty field to 19 houses. We need more housing in our community, and this is not nearly as dense as some of the rezone we've seen in our community,” said City Council president Gwen Jones. “We have a lot of River Roads that need work. We have many and we're only able to do a few each year. We did have a gas tax for a year, but that was taken away by the Legislature.”

The project meets Missoula's growth policy and zoning regulations and is of similar density and size as surrounding subdivisions, including the adjacent Carter Court, which includes 14 homes on a lot of the same size.

But residents of Carter Court moved the petition in opposition to the project, forcing Monday night's super-majority vote. The project was approved with a number of conditions but received resistance from two council members, including Kristen Jordan and John Contos.

However, the council's centrist body held together to approve the 19 new housing units.

“When we have these land-use decisions, we have a framework that's fairly straight forward – does it meet our growth policy?” said City Council vice president Jordan Hess. “This is a density we see in a lot of areas of town. There are lovely neighborhoods that are at this density.”

According to city staff, the River View Subdivision is on par with surrounding River Road developments, which range from 3.5 units per acre to eight units per acre. Carter Court, where the opposition sprang from, is 5.8 units per acre and includes an 11-foot setback.

The approved project includes 20 feet of setback and 8 units per acre.

“Infill and density were goals identified throughout the growth plan. It's going to be hard to debate this every time,” said council member Mike Nugent. “If we don't make smart infill decisions, we'll have more sprawl. It would be a bad precedent to not follow the growth plan, which our community invested a great deal of time in developing.”

However, even those who supported the project agreed that River Road needed better infrastructure to safely accommodate existing and growing traffic.

The project is on the city's transportation goals, but no timeline has been given for improvements. The lack of sidewalks and basic amenities were among the reasons opponents stood against the development.

“I feel like we're putting the cart before the horse. Putting a bunch of new homes on a road that can't handle the traffic is a concern. I wouldn't want to live on River Road right now,” said newly elected council member Kristen Jordan. “This is a developer trying to make as much money as possible on a piece of land. I won't be approving this.”

Members of the City Council acknowledged the deficiencies on River Road, but agreed that Missoula's housing needs rose above it. 

“There are things like impact fees that are reinvested in the community,” said council member Heidi West. “Having more people in these areas will increase the priority in which these projects may be addressed.”

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