Land where a local farm used to grow vegetables is up for development in Orchard Homes.
Protecting good farmland has been a concern in that area before, but this time constituents are offering some cautious - and some unambiguous - praise for the way a planning firm and the Office of Planning and Grants are considering those interests.
A Missoula City Council Committee on Wednesday takes up the proposal for Chickasaw Place. The owner wants the city to annex the roughly 9.5-acre property so he can create a 30-lot development. It's on South Seventh Street West just west of Tower Street. Clark Fork Organics used to farm some of the land, and the soils are rich.
Neighbors and developers have clashed about plans to build on productive soils in Orchard Homes in the past, and residents still have general concerns about Chickasaw. Orchard Homes Community Association secretary Erin Turner pointed to the main one.
"We're opposed to the kind of island annexations that are occurring," Turner said.
That's when the city annexes a property still surrounded by county land. Turner said that means some of the realities of county life confront people technically living in the city. Fireworks go off in the county and roosters are allowed, unlike in the city. So people get mad.
"How does it lend to building community when they're upset because there's fireworks over their yard or the roosters are crowing at 3 a.m.?" Turner said.
But Turner also said she appreciates the way planning firm WGM Group has been addressing the concerns of neighbors. For example, neighbors advocated for a road that preserves the character of the area, and she said WGM listened.
"That's a huge step. Prior to this, we really felt like we were beating our heads against the wall," she said of earlier discussions with the firm about different developments.
WGM Group planners could not be reached for comment Tuesday with multiple voicemails. The developer, George Lake, had appointments all day and also was unavailable for comment, according to an assistant.
WGM Group also earned praise from the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, which in part aims to protect farmland in the urban area. CFAC's Paul Hubbard said WGM planners are the first here to independently hire an outside analyst to study soils on a property slated for development.
"They deserve a lot of compliments for that," Hubbard said.
However, he also said one proposal for the property would put buildings on the best soil, one of several agricultural considerations. He prefers a solution presented by OPG and praised the department for nudging developers to collect better information about soils. In OPG's scenario, the city would annex the land and the developer would get to build all the lots on 6.5 acres. Hubbard said the net density would remain the same, but three prime acres would be protected as an agricultural resource.
Hubbard said the developer has presented an alternative that protects a different three acres, but it's more of a buffer and the plan puts homes on the best farmland. He said less than 2 percent of land has soils of that quality.
"We can't manufacture this," Hubbard said.
The road for Chickasaw also remains a factor as the proposal moves ahead. As for ag land, Turner said the neighbors prefer to preserve the land the developer wants to protect. It's farther away from Seventh Street and not the portion CFAC wants preserved, she said. But Turner said she appreciates that Lake has returned to the neighbors multiple times with different scenarios, and she wants to keep the big picture in mind.
"I definitely don't want to look away from the fact that man, we finally got to a point where people are considering the importance of agricultural land," she said.
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