Mayor declines to break tie
by Victoria Howell
After another public hearing and lengthy discussion, last Thursday the Stevensville Town Council voted 2-2 to conditionally approve the Burnt Fork Estates subdivision. Mayor Brandon Dewey chose not to break the tie, so the motion failed. For now. The council also voted unanimously to separate the request for a zoning change to allow commercial development from the subdivision decision.
Prior to the public hearing, consultant Andy Mefford addressed some of the issues that came up at the March 23rd question-and-answer session sponsored by the consultants. Mefford presented a revised comparison of the Creekside Meadows phases that were never developed and the Burnt Fork Estates proposal. He said Creekside was to have 65 single family (R-1) lots and 62 multi-family (R-2) lots, for a total of 155 units on 129 lots with a density of 2.7 units per acre. Burnt Fork Estates is proposed to have 78 single family (R-1) lots, 43 multi-family (R-2) lots, and 16 commercial (C-2) lots, for a total of 225 units on 137 lots with a density of 3.9 units per acre.
To address concerns about whether the development would cost current taxpayers anything, Mefford estimated the projected taxes that will be raised when the development is completed at $400,000 ($240,000 going to schools, $64,000 going to town). He estimated the infrastructure access fees for water and sewer hook ups to be about $1 million and building permit fees to be about $647,000.
Much of the focus of public comment was on the portion of the subdivision application that includes a 14-16 lot commercial development at the corner of Middle Burnt Fork and Logan.
“I don’t see how any of you in good conscience can vote for something that will kill this town,” said former council member Bob Michalson. “It will kill this town. It will take time but you’ll kill it.”
Joan Prather, former executive director of the Stevensville Main Street Association, said that the association had worked hard to make the downtown viable. “I’m not against commercial development but we need to keep it where it belongs,” said Prather. “If you look at the growth policy, commercial growth is encouraged on Main Street and Buck and Church streets… walkable communities are important. When you disconnect businesses, that doesn’t help. The community, when they have met over the years, has always been supportive of keeping the businesses in the core district, not spread out.”
Jim Edwards, owner of Burnt Fork Market, said that he doesn’t want to see what happened in Missoula happen here. He said they have added commercial development in new areas that has turned the older commercial areas into “ghost towns… the town of Stevensville struggles as it is. There’s no reason to change the zoning out there… We need housing, but there’s no reason to put businesses out there.”
Susan Brown pointed out that the traffic study was flawed because it had underestimated the impacts of the subdivision. She said she had verified with Montana Department of Transportation that the numbers were wrong. Because of that incorrect information, she cautioned the council on making a decision about the subdivision without having correct information. Brown also said that when Arlo Ellison created his phasing plan for the Creekside Meadows subdivision, “he had a vision.” She said what he had in mind was much more similar to what has already been built in Creekside phases 1 and 2.
Steve Gibson, former council member, said that access off Middle Burnt Fork and Logan has still not been granted by the county, so the council should not approve the project.
Jim Kalkofen, president of Creekside Meadows Homeowners Association, said that the subdivision application is incomplete for the following reasons: a Planning and Zoning Board suggestion to connect the residential area to the bike/walk path on Middle Burnt Fork Road has not been added to the plat map; county road access has not been approved; there is no maintenance plan for the proposed retention ponds; a per lot fee for road mitigation has not been established; school impact fees have not been established; written agreement that the developers will pay for a new booster station has not been included; the flawed traffic study needs to be corrected; the total number of housing units proposed remains unclear; the Town has no water rights for the subdivision; three of the town’s wells have no permits; the proposed subdivision does not conform to the Town’s Growth Policy; the subdivision will exceed water capacity; projected infrastructure fees may not be available when off-site improvements are made; it’s unclear whether the proposed stormwater drain system requires a permit; it’s unclear whether a security bond been paid.
“To move this application forward without answers is a dereliction of duty,” said Kalkofen.
Following public comment, council member Dempsey Vick said that the “elephant in the room” was the proposed C-2 zoning request. He said he had heard at least 45 people in the last two weeks say that they oppose the commercial development. Vick made a motion to deny the C-2 zoning request. Council member Paul Ludington suggested that instead they separate the zoning request from the subdivision proposal. Vick then rescinded his motion to deny the C-2 zoning and instead made a motion to separate out the zoning request from the subdivision application.
In discussion on the motion, council member Jaime Devlin said, “I’m an advocate for a lot of businesses throughout the valley. It’s something I’m extremely passionate about. To even remotely consider damaging our business community, I can’t do that. This community has worked too hard to help our community to thrive. We have a moral obligation more than anything to help the businesses we currently have. To think of commercial anywhere else at this point, I can’t do that.”
“The Main Street is the heart of Stevensville and that’s where it needs to stay,” said council member Patrick Shourd.
Gibson commented that if a portion of the subdivision proposal is changed, the developers would have to redesign it and resubmit it. The mayor disagreed and said that if they leave the lots and configuration exactly as it is, the R-2 zoning would still be in effect.
Kalkofen said he thought it was the same application with the zoning request included, so he couldn’t see that the council could make an informed decision without knowing what exactly was being proposed for the area where the commercial zoning was. He said the council should get a legal opinion before proceeding.
The council unanimously approved the motion to separate the zoning request from the subdivision application. The mayor advised the council to wait until the zoning request could be properly noticed on an upcoming agenda before addressing it but said they could still consider the preliminary plat approval, which they decided to do.
“My concern is, when we, if we, approve the subdivision there is nothing we can do once it’s in,” said council member Jaime Devlin. “We haven’t talked about the effects this has on Stevensville itself… All that traffic goes somewhere. All those people are going to go somewhere… They’re going to be in our town… If we had taken half of the passion and emphasis that we’ve spent on this subdivision and taken this into consideration a decade ago, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now… Why hasn’t somebody done something along the way to prepare for this?… Now we have to hurry up and make all these decisions… I don’t think that we in two nights can mitigate all of these issues to make our town safe, to make our town happy, and to make our town thrive in a manner we’re all accustomed to… I don’t know how to make a right decision about this because it affects so many things.”
According to Mayor Dewey, the Town did take significant strides in 2013 and 2015 in increasing the capacity of the water and wastewater systems. He said a capacity analysis is currently being done by HDR Engineering. The preliminary numbers show that the wastewater treatment plant can serve an additional 325 dwelling units and the water system has the capacity to serve an additional 1143 dwelling units. “If we reduce the unaccounted water that we lose in our water system by 50%, we could serve an additional 407 dwelling units,” said Dewey. HDR is working with DEQ to confirm the maximum capacity of the wastewater plant.
“With this particular development, I can’t see another way that we can control the growth as well,” said Shourd. “Each phase has to go through the DEQ, has to go through the DNRC, has to go through the Montana roads. We have seven opportunities to pump the brakes and say based on this information we can’t go any farther. The first phase is six homes. The second phase is 22. My concern is the growth that we’re going to see outside the town, outside the city limits… This is the one opportunity we have to control the growth and for the next 10 years modify it, regulate it and be able to stop it.”
“We look at a subdivision like this and these are not affordable homes,” said Devlin. “These are $4-5-600,000 homes that are going to go in there. Who are those people? They’re not people who are generally in our area. What does that mean for our town? There’s an expectation of living that goes along with that. Do we meet that? No, we don’t. What does it do to our town? Does it really bring a longterm business standpoint of money? I don’t know that it does.”
“Without meeting the conditions of approval, this is going nowhere… I ain’t conceding nothing on this one,” said council member Paul Ludington. “I want it to be right… I want that as much as anybody else. But unless we’re able to start, nothing’s going to happen… So, we have to decide that we want to look at growth, control that growth, and try to move forward and hold those people that want to do this to those regulations that we have put in place…
“The town has a credibility issue with these people that are sitting out here,” added Ludington. “They don’t believe that we can do the right thing. They’re thinking that we’re getting bought off. They’re thinking that we don’t care about how they feel. We do. I love this town. I don’t want to screw the town out of money. I’m not looking to send somebody from California marching out of here with millions of dollars. Why would we do that? We’re no different than you. We’re just trying to do what’s right for the town.”
“It’s a really challenging decision,” said Shourd. “I feel an obligation to do what’s best for this town now and in the future… Every citizen that I’ve talked to about water issues has two main points: we need to fix our water system ‘but don’t raise my bill’… This is an opportunity to put money into our water system for new storage tanks and raise the bills the least amount that we can… The R-2 provides opportunity for people that live and work at the locations throughout this town and deserve a nice neighborhood to live in. We can provide that in a very slow, structured process where every single phase comes before professionals. I can’t think of a better way to grow our community in the most careful way possible than what’s being presented.”
After the council discussed the conditions of approval recommended by the Planning and Zoning Board and did some further tweaking to them, Ludington made a motion to approve the Burnt Fork Estates subdivision. Ludington and Shourd voted in favor and Devlin and Vick voted against. Mayor Dewey said he would not break the tie because “this group specifically and especially needs to come to a consensus… in the fairest outcome for our citizens to weigh this decision is from the four of you coming to an agreement on how this proceeds… I’m not going to break the tie and the motion is going to fail.”
According to Mayor Dewey, the application remains pending until it is either approved, approved with conditions, or denied. He also said that if the developer has met all the requirements for approval, the council has no grounds to deny the subdivision and the matter could head to litigation.
The council decided to continue discussion of the subdivision proposal and the zoning request at a special meeting scheduled for April 1st.
Victoria Howell can be contacted at: victoriabitterrootstar.com or (406)207-8793.