Developer warns City Council: Delays, studies could kill South Hills subdivision

The proposed Hillview Crossing development will have to wait for another day, yet to be determined, before it’s considered for approval. The City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee has debated the project since December.

Disagreement over block lengths, pedestrian convenience and the timing of a stormwater report continued to hang over a proposed South Hills development on Wednesday and postponed for another week an elusive vote on the project, even after two hours of further debate.

Developers, who are seeking a conditional use to build a 68-unit townhome project dubbed Hillview Crossing, described the process as inexplicable. They suggested the city had singled out their project and had essentially killed it by the end of Wednesday’s hearing.

“We’re getting into an entirely different process and you’re asking for information you’ve never asked for a project before,” said Allan McCormick, an attorney representing the developers. “You’re treating this project differently. Your concerns are valid, but it has to be put into the context of the conditional use permit process.”

Members of the Land Use and Planning Committee tabled their discussion on trails and block lengths after debating whether to require one or two paved pathways with stairs through the center of the project.

While the developers have offered to build a trail east of the project to accommodate the development’s pedestrians, several council members weren’t supportive of that solution, saying it didn’t break up what they see as being long block lengths.

“The point is to provide for pedestrian mobility throughout the neighborhood,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “It’s important we adhere to that. There will be lots of people in these homes and they’ll want to move about.”

Requiring two internal paths with staircases failed to win a majority vote, prompting the committee to focus on a single path. But that too wasn’t universally supported, with some members of the committee saying pedestrians would still have to walk too far to reach their destination.

Developers have said the city’s call for a staired pathway would cost around $140,000, adding around $2,000 to the price of each home. The committee ultimately tabled a vote on the issue until a further date, which wasn’t set.

“This decision should be up to the customer and the market,” said council member Jesse Ramos. “It’s not the government’s role to make that decision for them and put the added tax of these two pathways or one pathway, or one pathway then two pathways. That’s not up to the government. It’s up to the market to decide.”

Disagreement also surfaced as the committee attempted to discuss the timing of the project’s stormwater and geotechnical report.

Members disagreed on whether the report should come before a conditional use is granted or as an added condition of approval for the requested project.

In an effort to expedite the process, council member Michelle Cares attempted to allow the report to come later as part of the larger condition of approval.

“I feel like we hashed this out quite a bit two weeks ago,” Cares said. “I hope we don’t have to hash it out again.”

But that didn’t win the committee’s support.

“I think we need to see these documents ahead of time,” Anderson countered. “Requiring them to come back to us with that is an important step of the public process we’ve been engaging in.”

The requirement also drew opposition from Ramos, who suggested that members of the committee didn’t trust the work of professional engineers. That drew a retort from council member John DiBari.

“Nobody has made that assertion,” DiBari said. “Please don’t put words in people’s mouths.”

“That’s the feeling that I felt,” Ramos said. “But maybe I was confused.”

Speaking for his clients, McCormick said the city’s added requirement that it see the report so early in the process essentially served as a denial of the project and ran contrary to the city’s own application process.

“When we get to a point where we’re being asked to provide documentation that’s never been asked before and isn’t required by the application process, it’s a little odd how the process will come to a halt,” he said. “You won’t let the process proceed. It’s inexplicable to me and is really an odd part of this entire process.”

Wednesday’s hearing on the project marked the sixth since December. While the developers had hoped to begin work this year, one representative suggested that’s not likely to happen given the pace of the city’s decision, and with construction prices rising, the entire project could fall apart.

Another hearing will be needed before approval can be rendered or denied, but the committee set no date for the hearing.

“One of the things we grapple with on council is, we want more inventory in Missoula at all levels and across the spectrum, so how do we make this a functional, feasible project with some of the issues we’re grappling with,” said council member Gwen Jones. “There’s safety issues, there’s quality of life issues.”