Proposed Mullan Road subdivision

A satellite view of the hay field, with Mullan Road at the bottom (southern) end of the photo.

A classic “not-in-my-backyard” battle is brewing over plans to rezone a 57-acre hay field north of Mullan Road on the western edge of Missoula, and develop housing units there.

Neighbors living in houses and densely built condo units around the vacant field say they’re concerned about traffic, safety, overcrowding, loss of views and diminishing rural character.

But city officials and developers say as Missoula’s population grows, places like the field east of Flynn Lane must be rezoned for higher density to increase the sorely needed housing stock, efficiently use taxpayer-funded utilities and infrastructure, and allow businesses to locate near residential areas to decrease traffic trips.

The Missoula City Council will hold a public hearing on Monday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. in the council chambers on a proposal to rezone the 57.5 acres north of Mullan Road, east of Flynn Lane and west of the Hellgate Meadows subdivision. The city’s development services staff recommends rezoning the field from the current residential-only zoning to a new zoning classification that allows a higher density of housing units and certain smaller businesses.

Two longtime local developers, Dave Edgell and Wade Hoyt, propose to build subdivision housing on the land, including detached homes with Accessory Dwelling Units that could be rented out.

“The change proposed allows for more housing that can currently be, and also allows for more diverse building types,” explained city planner Jenny Baker. “A rezoning is the only means to allow more dense development. This can benefit the public by lowering the cost of development by more efficient land use.”

Higher density closer to city services like sewer, streets and water means that those utilities don’t have to be extended on the taxpayer or developer dime, she said, meaning the housing costs will be less. The new zoning would promote business expansion in the area, she added.

“Allowing closer proximity to businesses allows residents to rely less on car trips for all of their daily needs,” she said. “Commercial development in a limited scale will fit this neighborhood.”

However, roughly 100 neighbors have sent in protest letters. About 60 of those live in a condo building nearby.

“When I purchased my condo at 4100 Mullan that overlooks the subject parcel and has views of the mountains in the distance, I was assured by the developer and real estate agent that the property was zoned for single-family dwellings and I was provided with a map of the zoning plan,” wrote Diane Alexander and Dan Chitty. “Had I known the property was going to be used for dense apartment dwellings that would significantly degrade the views from my property, I wouldn’t have purchased the property.”

They wrote that the area already has “extremely congested” traffic that would not be able to handle any more motorists. They said they’re worried about facing the rear of a strip mall, and the zoning change would reduce their property value and exacerbate congestion on Mullan Road.

Julienne Sybrowsky wrote that she and her neighbors want to “maintain the integrity” of the place they call home.

Empty spaces like the alfalfa field are one of the things that keeps Missoula one of the “last best places,” she wrote. “Now I understand that this beautiful city is growing and development is inevitable, but we, as responsible citizens, must do our best to minimize the damage. Rezoning this area would ruin the small, safe, family-oriented feel of this neighborhood.”

Because so many people wrote in to protest, two-thirds of the City Council must approve the zoning change on Monday rather than a simple majority.

However, the developers say that although the zoning change would allow 48 dwelling units per acre, they are not planning anything anywhere near that density. In fact, they say their planned subdivision will look a lot like subdivisions that are in the immediate area.

Nick Kaufman, a land-use planner with WGM Group, is working with the developers. He said the city needs a “middle ground” between 10,000-square-foot lots and high-density apartment buildings. He said the developers are proposing duplexes and triplexes and bungalows.

“This is what our workforce needs,” he said. “This is the middle that we’re trying to accomplish.”

Baker said the superintendent of the nearby Hellgate School District said they could accommodate more students, and firefighting officials have said there wouldn’t be any problems with access if the zoning is approved.

The Missoula County Consolidated Planning Board approved the rezone, as did the City Council's Land Use and Planning Committee.

Baker said the proposed rezone meets a number of review criteria, including whether it will benefit the public.

The area on the western edge of Missoula near Mullan Road is rapidly changing. A new $16M commercial plaza is planned nearby, and city and county officials are applying for a $23 million federal grant to help build infrastructure to accommodate a projected $160 million worth of growth in the area.

The meeting on Monday will take place at 7 p.m. at 140 W. Pine Street.

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