Artist's rendition of the proposed Hillview Crossing townhouse development.

Widening Hillview Crossing’s proposed streets by seven feet and the location of trails through the development — including a possible 216-foot-staircase — took top billing Wednesday during Missoula’s Land Use and Planning committee meeting.

This was the seventh time the proposed 68-unit Townhome Exemption Development (TED) came before city council members, who are trying to balance the project developers’ needs with the impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods. So far, the office of Developmental Services has recommended approval of the project with 23 conditions.

On Wednesday, the council discussed amending the conditional use approval regarding the streets and trails.

One concern is that the development’s relatively steep roads won’t be constructed to city standards, with narrower street widths that allow parking only on one side on the two dead-end cul-de-sacs. Since city engineers said they won’t accept them, the streets will remain private property, which means the homeowners association will have to plow and enforce parking restrictions.

Council members are worried that the narrow streets could get congested in an emergency, with people unable to exit the subdivision or blocking fire trucks or ambulances from entering. In addition, they wondered how parking and plowing would be enforced, especially if the homeowners’ association dissolves.

On an 8-2 vote, the council voted to amend one of the conditions that would force the developer to widen the proposed roads from 28 to 35 feet. Commissioners Bryan von Lossberg and Julie Armstrong voted against the amendment; Jesse Ramos and Jordan Hess were absent.

“What we are trying our best to do is provide as much flexibility to the developer while exercising our good judgment on how to meet certain conditions that develop over time,” Chairman John DiBari said. “It’s kind of splitting the baby at some level. These may not be completely ideal, but we are trying our best to get to a solution where this would receive a favorable vote from the committee.”

Still, the ever-increasing scrutiny drew the ire of the project’s attorney, Alan McCormick, who compared the council’s oversight to what is usually reserved for subdivisions. He noted that the 2011 Montana Legislature amended state codes to allow townhouse developments to occur without subdivision review, which is similar to the way condominium projects are treated.

The TED developments allow for denser, and possibly more affordable homes since developers could pass along the cost savings of not having to go through the regulatory process, among other reasons.

“This isn’t a subdivision and the continuing comparison to subdivision regulations is inappropriate,” McCormick told the committee, noting that all the engineering work to date has been for 28-foot-wide streets, and the amendment could force the relocation of the townhomes. “It pushes the houses out and further down the hill; then you need a higher retaining wall. This shouldn’t be switched from 28 to 35 feet and is the height of arbitrary.”

He noted that the TED was approved twice in the past with the narrower roads, based in large part on the topography of the steep hillside. This time, Territorial Landworks Inc. is representing Hillview Crossing developers John Guiliani and Dan Ermatinger.

DiBari countered that the 35-foot road width falls within the TED standards and helps alleviate the fire department’s concerns, with Councilor Stacie Anderson adding that if McCormick lived in the second to the last house on the road and a loved one needed emergency aid, he’d appreciate the wider streets.

“Our primary lens has to be looking at public safety and the greater community,” Anderson said. "I think the homeowners’ association will have its hands full maintaining and plowing the road.”

The placement and type of trails through the development also are an issue for committee members, which wasn’t resolved at the meeting. Territorial Landworks proposes two natural, switch-back type of trails on either side of the development, but due to the long bank of houses, city staff recommended a 216-step stairway generally through the middle of it running north and south.

But that still makes for long stretches of blocks. Generally, the standard TED calls for 480-foot block lengths, but even with the central trail the block lengths would range from 420 feet to 830 feet. A second option called for two trails that would evenly split the block lengths into 480 feet.

The trails are important, councilors said, because neither school buses nor city buses will be able to use the roads, and they’re trying to encourage pedestrian use by children and others by creating ways they won’t have to take circuitous routes to reach their destinations.

Paul Forsting with Territorial Landworks said he understood their concerns, but putting in 216 stairs through the middle of the development, along with handrails, would add an estimated $140,000 to the project, or about $2,000 per town home.

“The wording for the access easements doesn’t say it will be required infrastructure … to take the leap saying you may be required to do pedestrian easements to saying you will do a trail that amounts to 216 stairs — that’s a significant stretch within that requirement,” Fortine said. “We provided an alternative design that would break right in the middle, which we think is suitable.”

He added that the trails are a better option for winter use than stairs, and the potential trails through the subdivision will devalue the lots next to them.

That led to DiBari asking, in what he said was a “sort of a flip comment,” how much would be added to the project cost if the city required the roads to be circular rather than dead ends.

“But you can’t put a road in and if you had to put a road in it would cost substantially more,” DiBari added.

That led to discussions about requiring a natural trail with switchbacks through the middle of the development, which could require a wider easement. At the end, the committee ran out of time and wants more information before voting on the trails.

The development is slated for vacant property west of Hillview Way, south of the Wapikya area south of South 39th Street and north of the Moose Can Gully neighborhood. It would be accessed off Hillview Way.

The committee plans to take up the development again next Wednesday.

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