Planning board recommends removal of easement requirement for Fox Farm rezone project

A condition of approval for the rezoning of the Fox Farm intersection area included a requirement for the developers of the proposed hotel to secure an easement from the owners of the adjacent Chinese restaurant property.

In the months since the City Commission voted to include that provision, the developers have worked to secure the easement but say those efforts have failed.

Now, they’re going back through the development process to have the condition removed so that the hotel construction can begin without the easement.

Fox Farm rezone going back through city process; easement has not been acquired

As long as the easement remains a condition of approval, the city planning department cannot issue a construction permit without the easement.

On Tuesday, the city Planning Advisory Board reviewed the request.

City staff recommended denial of the request, meaning the easement would remain a requirement.

The PAB did not follow the staff recommendation and voted to recommend approval of removing the easement condition.

The request next goes to the City Commission for a first reading on Nov. 7. The tentative schedule puts the public hearing and commission vote on the request at the Dec. 5 meeting.

All nine PAB members attended the meeting for the Fox Farm discussion, which lasted for about two hours. One member had to leave shortly after 5 p.m. The meeting continued for a vote on annexation, zoning and a preliminary plat for a proposed NeighborWorks Great Falls apartment complex. (The Electric will have an update on that project later this week)

124-apartment complex makes another step toward construction

Roughly 30 people were in the audience during the meeting. Several were city staff, a half-dozen or so were there for the NWGF project and about another half dozen were there to speak on behalf of the Fox Farm rezoning.

One woman spoke in opposition to removing the easement condition based on concerns for safety and traffic in the area.

Tom Micuda, deputy city planning director, said city staff recommended against removing the easement condition in the interest of ensuring another access point to the property and protecting that access for the future should land use change at the Chinese restaurant, which is currently for sale for $1.2 million.

Micuda said that the traffic study conducted by the applicant and reviewed by third-party traffic consultants for both the applicant and the city. All of the reports thus far indicate there will be little traffic added by the hotel.

But since the intersection is already rated at a service level of D, Micuda said the city’s view is that the easement creates an additional access point and can help spread additional traffic throughout the area and create options should there be continued development in the area.

Micuda and Craig Raymond, city planning director, said multiple times during the meeting that the easement had been part of the discussion since the early stages and that the applicant agreed to the condition when it went to a commission vote.

Initially, the applicant, Billings Holdings LLC, requested that the property be rezoned from C-1 Neighborhood Commercial to C-2 General Commercial.

After the first reading at the City Commission when there was considerable public comment, commissioners tabled the vote and directed staff to develop a Planned Unit Development option that would include conditions related specifically to casinos and traffic safety concerns.

Micuda said staff has never objected the to the proposed use of the property, but has concerns about public safety.

Joe Murphy, the project manager with Big Sky Civil and Environmental, said they’ve been working on this project for about two years. He said the applicant negotiated with the Chinese restaurant owners from March through August, offering compensation, paving their parking lot and to place menus in all of the rooms at the proposed hotel.

Dan Sampson, on behalf of Billings Holdings LLC, said the “inability to secure this easement was not for lack of effort.”

Sampson said they’ve worked with different traffic engineers to determine the impact of their project on the Fox Farm intersection area.

Several traffic improvement projects are in the works, including narrowing the median on Fox Farm Road to create more space for cars turning left into the existing casino or gas station. That will relieve some congestion in the intersection by allowing thru traffic on Fox Farm to continue moving instead of backing up into the intersection while waiting for those making the left hand turn.

That project has been approved by the Montana Department of Transportation and is moving forward if the developer stays with the property. The developer is required to pay for the road improvements.

Pete Fontana, PAB board member, asked if the city had considered condemnation or eminent domain to force the easement from the owners of the Chinese restaurant.

Staff said that has been discussed but Assistant City Attorney Joe Cik said he couldn’t comment on the likelihood of that being successful. The developer could seek legal action to get the easement, but that would not involved the city, Cik said.

Terry Thompson, a member of Neighborhood Council 3 and heads the Great Falls Association of REALTORS, said there was little opposition from the neighbors at the meeting and staff received three emails regarding the project. The project is not in the NC3 district but Thompson said that since the developer has met the majority of the conditions, the board should not deny their request to remove the easement requirement.

Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said that he typically supports staff recommendations, but in this case, he thought staff made a mistake in their recommendation.

The PAB voted 8-1 to recommend that the City Commission approve the developer’s request to remove the easement condition. Newly appointed Patrick Sullivan was the lone dissenting vote.