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City of Missoula

A year-long debate over a controversial 68-unit townhouse project in the South Hills narrowly passed Monday, as the Missoula City Council sussed out all the details of the development and debated whether it would actually impact affordable housing in Missoula.

The council passed the conditional-use permit on a 6 to 4 vote, with two councilors absent.

The development, known as Hillview Crossing, is planned for a relatively steep slope above the Wapikiya neighborhood, which in combination with the large size of the project, drew additional scrutiny.

Neighbors to the project have fought diligently against it over the course of a year, with concerns about school bus accessibility, stormwater runoff, road width and fear of the whole project falling down the hillside.

Teresa Jacobs, a local resident who has led the opposition to the project spoke against passing the project, citing traffic safety issues, particularly in winter, when traffic is going in and out of the developments entry road on Hillview Way and the road is slick.

“I think the record will show that things are still being hashed or not resolved and the plan hasn’t been shown to be workable or safe for residents,” Jacobs said. “It appears that it’s hard for city council members to say no to developers who have so cleverly figured out a way to squish 68 townhomes onto a steep hillside. The problem that developers have not yet figured how to make sure people living in that development and the wider area would also not be in peril or negatively impacted by their design.”

Jacobs also pointed to concerns from the fire marshal with the road width and turnarounds at the end of the two dead-end streets that make up the development.

At the close of her comment, she asked members of the audience who were in agreement with her against the project to stand and say “Aye.” About 30 people, the majority of the audience, rose and did so.

Other longtime area residents talked about their dismay in losing the large swath of open land, as well as displeasure with having so many townhomes in an area dominated by single-family homes.

Since being proposed in December 2018, the city council has passed stricter regulations on this type of townhouse development, which usually sees expedited approval, aimed at limiting the size of projects that can take advantage of the fast-tracked process. However, Hillview Crossing isn’t being held to the new standards retroactively.

The most obvious factor of Hillview Crossing that conflicts with the new ordinance is the size. The stricter ordinance limits the fast-tracked developments to 20 units, as opposed to the 68 proposed.

The fast-tracked process, known as a Townhouse Exemption Development, or TED, was created by the Montana Legislature in 2011 to help spur post-recession affordable housing development.

The city council worked with the developers over the past year to expand runoff management, manage road width options and improve the plans for a walking trail along the development.

In late July, the project’s attorney, Alan McCormick, threatened to sue the city if it didn’t make progress on the decision, saying city council was stonewalling the project after refusing to debate it further until the developers performed high-level geotechnical analysis.

McCormick held that the type of micro-level analysis the council was seeking was out-of-bounds of the typical early-stage review process, and an unreasonable request. The Land Use and Planning committee subsequently held multiple sessions to debate the project in the months since July.

John DiBari, who led the Land Use and Planning committee throughout the majority of the previous year of debate, voted against the project, saying that the council was giving up its authority to ensure public safety, and giving away that responsibility to city staff.

"In my time working on development in Missoula, this proposal has the highest probability of actual and financial harm to adjacent neighbors and the people who might live in this development," DiBari said, pointing out that the committee had worked to mitigate this harm by requesting more information from the developers, which they never received.

Mayor John Engen, Council President Bryan von Lossberg and Councilors Gwen Jones and Jesse Ramos disagreed, saying that the council needed to grant some authorities to staff, who have expertise, and that if the conditional use permit was approved, it would be on the developers to make it work safely.

Councilors Mirtha Becerra, Heidi West, and Stacie Anderson joined DiBari in voting against the project. They argued it wouldn’t help with the affordable housing shortage, as the project would not be affordable, and simply adding housing stock wasn’t enough, as new developments need to be safe, walkable, well-designed neighborhoods.

Councilors Jordan Hess and Julie Armstrong were absent. The project is in Ward 5, represented by Anderson and Armstrong.

***

In other business, the City Council also heard feedback on and approved it’s plan to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance an affordable housing project being built next to the county jail and a second location at the former Skyview Trailer Park.

The city will issue $27 million in tax-exempt bonds that the affordable housing project would eventually pay back, ultimately saving the project hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes and fees, while costing local taxpayers nothing. In the deal, the city would simply act as a pass-through to reduce costs for the non-profit developers, passing on those savings in the form of lower rent.

The tax-exempt bonds also include 4% low-income housing tax credits, which help fund the project by being sold to investors.

Earlier this year, Missoula County agreed to donate four acres of vacant land next to the detention center for a 130-unit affordable housing project, including 30 units of the apartments set aside for housing people experiencing chronic homelessness, as well as a 24-hour “navigation center” to help people access various housing, medical and job training services and other essentials. The navigation center would also eventually serve as a winter warming shelter, currently being hosted at the Salvation Army.

The project, known as the Trinity Apartments, also includes a 72-unit complex at the former site of the Skyview Trailer Park on Cooley Street.

The total 202 units of housing will be co-owned by Homeword and the Missoula Housing Authority, and are being developed by local affordable housing specialist Blueline Development. The apartments will be set aside for people making at or below 60% of Missoula’s area median income. That means they will be priced for an individual making $30,840 or below, for example, or a family of four making $43,980, based on current median income levels.

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