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Guest column: Sonata ruling sets dire precedent - Friday, December 28, 2007

Guest column: Sonata ruling sets dire precedent - Friday, December 28, 2007

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The rights of the Rattlesnake Valley community to have a say in a precedent-setting decision about its future - in this case, the Sonata Park subdivision - died Dec. 17. The 34.08-acre housing subdivision approved that night will be plunked down smack in the middle of open range land just south of the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area and west of Duncan Drive.

Some two dozen residents living in the valley have met regularly over the past year to review and update the 1995 Rattlesnake Valley Comprehensive Plan created to provide guidelines for the future of the area. However, the City Council chose in its deliberations to ignore them, particularly the critical studies concerned with land use. The council vote was 10-2 with dissenting votes from Heidi Kendall and Dave Strohmaier of Ward 1.

After much wrangling, during which time the plan made the rounds through City Council, the Office of Planning and Grants and Planning Annexation and Zoning, concerned residents were tossed a bone when a revised plan reduced the total number of homes in the project from 38 single family lots to 37. Beyond the fact that the city provided little evidence that concerns over wildlife habitat, fire safety, traffic and the environment have been adequately addressed, the approval process took several curious turns. At the 11th hour a council member made a motion to reduce the lot size, a move which was questioned by at least one other council member as being an issue that should have been dealt with at the front end of the proceedings. In another "cart before the horse" moment, we learned only after council approved the project that no decision had yet been made as to how waste from the subdivision would be moved either over or under Rattlesnake Creek.

For many of us who have attended the endless round of hearings over these past weeks, there has been increasing uneasiness with the seemingly collegial relationship between the city and WGM Group Inc., which represented the Sonata Park project owners. We would prefer to think it a purely professional relationship, but City Council seemed too often willing to accept the assertions of WGM in lieu of relying on what we hoped would be their own independent study. All the while, many who waited patiently to speak during public comment were often admonished to keep it brief. An ominous sign appeared in a single substantive item in the PAZ memo of Nov. 29 sent to the City Council noting that an approved Sonata Park project would result in the subject property's taxes rising from $234.30 to $91,200.

Some say that the Rattlesnake residents don't want development, but that's not true and the 1995 Rattlesnake Valley Comprehensive Plan, which the council chose to disregard, specifically addresses sensible growth. The recently approved Teton subdivision in the Lower Miller Creek area is contiguous to the existing Maloney Ranch. But the Sonata subdivision is an anomaly - a red flag. It sets a dangerous precedent that will make it ever easier for the city to grant approval for other large developments on other open lands - as well as the upper Rattlesnake Valley - where another development may soon be brought before the city. If approved, it would permit another 100 home sites on ground bordering Sonata Park to the north.

Thousands of Missoulians who do not live in the Rattlesnake but recreate there will ultimately be affected, too, as traffic on the valley's two lone roadways increases and the rural character of the upper Rattlesnake is diminished forever. While those living outside of the affected area may still consider this a matter affecting only the residents of the Rattlesnake Valley, consider this question: Will the city display similar disregard for the plans you develop for the sensible and orderly growth and safety of your own neighborhoods?

Recent history is not on your side.

Doug Hacker is a writer and former broadcaster who lives in the Rattlesnake Valley and is a member of the group that helped develop the Rattlesnake Valley Comprehensive Plan.

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