City Commission agenda includes multiple controversial items

Tuesday’s City Commission agenda is packing a punch and here’s what you need to know before you get there.

Thaniel Annexation 

This project started several years ago and was highly controversial during the 2015 commission hearings and vote.

The bulk of the property, 142 acres, have already been annexed into the city but will remain in agricultural use until future development plans are presented to the city for approval. The remaining 13.4 acres are being used for the NeighborWorks Great Falls self-help program and when completed will have 60 single-family homes. The homes are being constructed in phases of 10 homes each and the first 10 homes were completed in December, according to NWGF. The second build is underway and home owners are expected to be moving in late July or early August and the third build is slated to start in July, according to NWGF.

The self-help program, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and require that the homes be constructed in the county and then annexed into the city.

The proposal for Tuesday night is the phased annexation of the 10-home blocks as they are completed. NWGF has said each 10-home phase will take about a year, so the entire development should be completed around 2021. Though the planning department is seeking approval of all six annexations at once, the department won’t file the resolutions with the county clerk and recorder’s office until construction is complete in each phase, said Craig Raymond, city planning director.

When the larger property was annexed in 2015, the developer, Ken Cox, retained about 28 lots for residential development between Division Road and 3rd Street Northwest on 37th and 38th Avenues Northwest. A number of those lots have since been sold and houses have been built on several, according to city planning.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed annexations during Tuesday’s meeting.

Park District

Commissioners will consider a resolution of intent to create a park district.

Park district hearing set for June 6

The proposal is for a 20-year park district for $2,267,796 annually for the first three years and the assessment would be based on taxable value. For a property with a $100,000 taxable value, the assessment would be $43.28 annually, or $3. 61 per month.

The Park and Rec master plan identified $12 million in deferred maintenance and recommended completion of those projects within 1-5 years. The plan also recommends 39 full-time employees. The department currently has 23.5 full timers and the plan recommends the addition of 12 positions within the next three years.

During the May 22 town hall meeting on the proposal, interim Park and Rec director Patty Rearden said, “that’s what we do routinely when we have issues. We patch them…but it doesn’t fix the problem.”

The plan includes adding two arborists in the forestry division for general parks. Tree maintenance for the boulevard district is included in that separate assessment.

During the town hall, one resident asked if the city had considered development impact fees. The city started adding requirements for park land and maintenance fees in development agreements at least two years ago, though those would be specific the neighborhood park in the development and wouldn’t likely help with deferred maintenance citywide.

Rearden said if the citywide park district is created, it would terminate those park fees established in development agreements, and the development agreement documents include a provision expressly stating that.

Several other Montana cities have implemented park districts and Rearden said there was public resistance initially in Billings, but they’ve made such progress that when it came time to renew the district, there was minimal resistence.

Another resident at the town hall suggested that the city consider corporate sponsors for parks and Rearden said that has been used for facilities like the Pacific Steel and Recycling dog park, Lions Park and others. The city has also received numerous grants and donations from local businesses and other organizations to support parks.

The department works with the Rivers Edge Trail Foundation and Peoples Park and Recreation Foundation to leverage city funding, grants and federal funding to complete projects.

A recent example is the slew of improvements in West Bank Park which will be completed this summer.

Park and Rec received $460,000 in tax increment funds from the city and combined those with $311,144 in grants, $$49,839 from RET Foundation and $18,500 from city funds.

The department is slated to receive funds through the city’s Community Development Block Grants allocation for a pavilion in West Bank, which is being combined with funds from the park foundation. The department also received a grant from Kaboom for a natural play structure, which will be installed this summer. Rearden said about 200 volunteers will be needed for the installation in August.

Those improvements stemmed from the 2011 master plan for West Bank Park.

If commissioners approve the resolution of intent on June 6, letters will be mailed June 9 to all property owners in the city limits detailing the proposed park district, the process and the assessment. If more than 50 percent of property owners protest the creation of the district, the proposal is dead in the water. If between 10 and 50 percent of property owners protest, the commissioners can do nothing or the proposal must go to a referendum. If less than 10 percent protest, commissioners can move forward with creating the district by resolution.

Park District assessment considered to support city park system

CDBG Allocations

After conflict of interest issues and some redos, the commission is scheduled to vote on the action plan and funding awards through the city’s Community Development Block Grant allocation and HOME program.

Conflict of interest concerns plague this year’s CDBG allocation decisions

Those are both federal programs under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the funds pass through the city to be awarded to agencies and programs in affordable housing, public service and economic development.

A number of concerns arose from the Paris Gibson Square application for funding for an ADA bathroom at the facility.

The chair of the Community Development Council has past issues with PGS that allegedly caused her to score their application very low, resulting in PGS not being recommended for funding.

Tracy Houck, PGS director and a city commissioner, then sent emails to city staffers complaining about the recommendation against funding PGS, causing considerable backlash from those involve in the process and some in the community.

Because of the conflict of interest issues and procedural errors at a CDC meeting, City Attorney Sara Sexe advised the CDC to redo the public facilities portion of the scoring, which resulted in PGS, as well as others who had initially not been recommended for funding, getting funding.

Because of those issues, city staff is recommending that the commission establish a policy starting with the next grant year that the decision-making process for the funds will not include any applications for those funds. The current CDC is composed of a number of people who work for the nonprofits that typically apply for and receive CDBG/HOME grants.

“This policy will be drafted to protect the continued integrity and transparency of the process to ensure there are no appearance of, or actual, conflicts of interest by precluding all non-profit/for-profit agencies which are directly connected to a City Commissioner or Community Development Council member from being able to apply for CDBG/HOME funds. Staff proposes that such a policy be developed and voted on at the beginning of the next grant cycle, when CDBG Policies and Procedures are typically reviewed,” according to the staff report.

Despite significant online discussion about the controversy, only six written comments were submitted to the city, and the bulk of them were in support of PGS’ funding. You can read the comments here.

CDC meeting, during which PGS allocation discussed Feb. 23.

Animal Code Revision

Commissioners will consider proposed revisions to the city’s animal code as well, but it’s only a first reading and commissioners are expected to set the public hearing for June 20.

If approved, the major changes include:

  • a new provision that would prohibit owning bee hives if a neighbor has a medically documented bee allergy;
  • a more formal complaint procedure, requiring name, address, contact information and documentation supporting the complaint;
  • regulating potentially dangerous or dangerous animals;
  • creating an appeal process for those denied a breeder licenses;
  • adding additional penalties to owners of nuisance, dangerous and/or at-large animals;
  • clarifying the number of animals allowed without a multiple animal permit;
  • and the city shelter will no longer take animals from owners to be euthanized, owners will have to have a veterinarian perform that service.

City proposing changes to animal ordinance

The proposed revision would retain the prohibition on chickens in the city limits.

Some chicken supporters have taken to social media to indicate they will push for the city to change that rule while updating the ordinance.

The prohibition was enacted by the commission in 2007. Since then, efforts to legalize urban chickens in the city have failed, including a 2013 petition to put the issue on the ballot.

Glenn McCaffrey is a master gardener and said he’s support legalizing urban chickens.

“There are quite a few of us who want chickens,” he said.

The benefits include fresh eggs, pest control and manure for fertilizer.

“We’re a rural state, we’re an agriculture state,” McCaffrey said. “Seems to me if we’re an agriculture state, we can be an agriculture city.

He is supportive of restrictions should the city legalize chickens once again. McCaffrey said the city could set limits on the number of hens and would be willing to forgo roosters. McCaffrey said they shouldn’t be objectionable to the neighbors or free range, but wouldn’t support a licensing fee.

“I don’t really think the city has any business dictating what you should have on your property,” he said. But added that citizens should take an active role in the process if they want chickens legalized again. He plans to attend commission meetings on the matter.

A Great Falls couple was cited last year for having illegal chickens after neighbors complained and subsequently filed suit against the city alleging the city’s ordinance was illegal. The city has requested a summary judgement from Judge John Kutzman. 

Bozeman adopted an ordinance allowing chickens in 2009 and sets limits on the number of chickens and requires a fee and permit. Billings, Missoula and Kalispell also allow chickens with restrictions on number, size of coops and annual permits and fees.

On Monday, the Montana Department of Public Health announced that 14 people in 11 counties, including Cascade County, have been diagnosed with salmonella after coming in contact with live poultry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 372 people in 47 states have become ill and 71 were hospitalized since the outbreak began earlier this year.

In Montana, people associated with the outbreak have reported obtaining live baby chicks and ducklings from feed supply stores and relatives, according to DPHHS.