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Missoula County commissioners deny controversial zoning change in East Missoula

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East Missoula Development (copy)

East Missoula resident Ildi White stands where developers had planned to build up to 59 apartment units in the center of town, a place many area residents, including White, would rather see something else.

Missoula County's Board of County Commissioners has denied a request by a developer to change the zoning of a parcel of land near the Ole's in East Missoula for an apartment project.

Castle Rock Construction wanted to build 59 units on the 1.65 acre plot. The decision by the board means the developers, who were represented by IMEG, will only be able to build 44 units.

Representatives for the developers said prior to the vote that they would likely still build units at the site if the zoning change was denied.

A robust discussion lasting more than two hours — involving the commissioners, developer representatives, county staff and local residents — preceded the vote, which was unanimous.

The project received significant pushback from East Missoulians, who have been organized by several local community groups including the East Missoula Community Council.

A public hearing on the topic was originally opened on Dec. 12. The hearing was cut short when commissioner Josh Slotnick had to leave that meeting early and the developers allowed an extension to the county to complete their decision-making process.

"If this is truly what the community is saying it wants and the developer is still getting what the developer wants, then I can live with that," Commissioner Juanita Vero said.

Pushback from those living in the area stemmed, for the most part, from two things — locals want commercial development and many feel like developers are trying to build something that won't comply with future zoning laws.

Missoula County is nearing the end of the process to update its zoning code, which is expected to be finished early this year.

Representatives for the developers also said they spent significant time listening and gathering community input. Some on the board did not see it that way.

"I don't doubt that there has been some level of public engagement between IMEG and the community, but the fact that there is 100% community opposition to this, it's been an abysmal failure," Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said.  

There was also significant worry by community members that density would be too high. IMEG's Paul Forsting pushed back against this notion.

"I don't know where affordable housing is going to go. This is where it should go. But nobody wants it there," Forsting said. "You know, the public's going to come out and say they don't want it anywhere. They don't want houses next to houses, they don't want houses anywhere. So I don't know what to do."

At one point during the meeting, the developers messaged their representatives at IMEG, and promised one commercial space on the ground floor. A discussion was also had over whether to send this back to the drawing board, with the idea to create something the community was on board with.

That idea ultimately did not come to fruition due to time constraints of county staff and the project being pushed closer to when the new zoning requirements will be finalized. 

Lee Bridges, East Missoula Community Council chair, was then asked by the commission if the community would rather have 59 units with a commercial space or 44 units. She said 44 units and commissioners expressed slight surprise, saying they thought having commercial space was a larger driving factor for the opposition to the project.

The tool being used is a vacation of a variance, which would put the area under Missoula County zoning regulations for a specific type of development. The change would open the door for a large residential build.

The Missoula Consolidated Planning Board voted 6-1 on Nov. 16 to approve the vacation of the variance. Missoula County land use and planning staff had also recommended the request be approved.

"I don't want the identity of East Missoula to become really what it feels like now and I feel like there was a glimmer here, but it's going to have to become something for another day," Slotnick said. 

Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Shout at him on Twitter @jordyhansen or send him an email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com

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