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Approval of Russell Street casino falls short

Habitat for Humanity's latest project gained unanimous approval from the Missoula City Council on Monday night despite some opposition from local residents, while other neighborhood protests put an end to plans for a new casino on Russell Street.

The council voted 11-0 to allow a four-building, seven-unit condominium complex to go forward at 808 Defoe St. Habitat for Humanity supporters pointed out the irony that if someone had proposed the same project as a rental, City Council approval or an engineer's review would not have been needed.

"The law makes some real disincentives to go for home ownership instead of rentals," said architect Jerry Ballas, who volunteered his skills to design the project. Making the project owner-occupied also increased costs because each duplex requires two separate water, sewer, telephone and other utility services, Ballas said. Rental duplexes can make do with combined services and lower costs.

At Monday's public hearing, two neighbors complained that the project would have no yard space, potential residents were getting into arguments with current neighbors, and the permit process appeared to be improper. Protester Harry Brewer said the extra reviews were warranted because in a landlord-rental situation, neighbors had a better understanding of who was responsible for the property.

Land-use consultant Nick Kaufman, who also assisted with the project, replied that he had lived for many years next to Habitat for Humanity homes and their residents in El Mar Estates west of Missoula.

"There was no difference between them and me except for their income status at a certain point in time," Kaufman said.

The homes have an expected cost of $50,000, which successful applicants will pay back on no-interest, long-term loans, Ballas said.

"If a lot of this work wasn't done pro bono, they probably would have taken the easy way out and built rentals," said Ward 4 Council member Myrt Charney. "The law requires all this formality and paperwork. I think we need to put changing that on our legislative agenda for the next session."

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In other business, the council narrowly decided to deny a request to put a casino-lounge at 1605 Russell St.

Ward 5's Scott Morgan said that because the project originally was proposed last winter and encountered neighborhood opposition, a series of negotiations between the developers and area residents had taken place.

"Some of the most imaginative notions for reaching accommodation were brought forward, but accommodation could not be reached," Morgan said. "I think we want to put this to rest with a vote."

But Ward 6 representative Tracey Turek said the developers recently offered buying out the liquor license of the nearby 10th Street Tavern and moving it to the Russell Street location. That would initiate a compromise by removing an existing bar that now is next to a public park in the middle of a neighborhood, and putting it instead on a well-buffered commercial street. However, the neighborhood association handling the developer meetings didn't schedule a meeting to discuss that option, she said.

Some council members appeared willing to delay a decision to give that option time for consideration. But Kaufman, who also was representing the casino developers, said the effort probably would be futile.

"This project is officially protested," Kaufman said. "I don't think we could ever get the full consent of the neighborhood or the nine votes of the council necessary to overcome a protest."

Nevertheless, Morgan's motion to deny the request passed by a 6-5 vote, with Ward 1's Lois Herbig and Dave Harmon, Ward 2's Jim McGrath, Ward 3's Lou Ann Crowley, Ward 5's Morgan and Ward 6's Andy Sponseller in favor. Opponents were Jamie Carpenter of Ward 2, Larry Anderson and Myrt Charney of Ward 4, Jack Reidy of Ward 5 and Turek of Ward 6. Ward 3's Chris Gingerelli was absent.

Tuesday - 6/29/99

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