Fox Farm easement requirement removed allowing hotel project to advance

After about an hour of public comment, City Commissioners voted 5-0 to remove the easement requirement for the planned Town Pump hotel at the Fox Farm intersection.

Staff had recommended keeping the easement requirement over public safety concerns related to traffic in the area.

Fox Farm easement set for commission decision on Dec. 5

The easement requirement had been added in the spring as part of the Planned Unit Development zoning that included conditions of approval meant to allay neighborhood concerns about traffic and the potential for casinos in the area. The commission approved the PUD earlier this year with the condition that the hotel developers get an easement from the owners of the Chinese restaurant to allow legal access from Alder Drive.

Commissioners said they supported the project, though some shared staff’s concerns about traffic in the area.

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

Commissioner Bill Bronson said the easement question was moot because the city had in 1961 vacated a road that is now the area eyed for the easement and in doing so, reserved the easement, so he believes the city already has the access staff was seeking.

And because the road from Alder Drive in front of the Chinese restaurant has been used for years without objection, Bronson said that constitutes a prescriptive easement.

Bronson said that’s his interpretation of the city’s records and the law, but if it was challenged, the matter would go to court and Bronson said he believed the court would agree it’s a prescriptive easement.

Bronson said he also has concerns about traffic in the area and wants staff to continue monitoring the conditions at the intersection.

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

Staff has continued to voice concern about safety at the Fox Farm intersection and while the city and the developer agree that the hotel will have a minimal impact on traffic, city staff has encouraged the easement to ensure additional access to the property and to provide another legal access point as pressure on the intersection continues to grow.

Town Pump argued that since the hotel would have minimal traffic impact, that the easement was unnecessary for their project.

Representatives for Town Pump said they offered to pay for drainage improvements at the Chinese restaurant, pavement repairs, place menus in each of their new hotel rooms and a cash payment for the easement, but communication from the Chinese restaurant ceased during into the negotiation process. The Chinese restaurant property is currently for sale.

Some speakers in the City Commission meeting and the previous Planning Advisory Board/Zoning commission meeting indicated that if the property was sold, the easement would cease to exist, but when properly written and executed, easements generally stay with a property in perpetuity.

Many spoke in favor of eliminating the easement requirement during Tuesday’s commission meeting because of the economic development impact.

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Gayle Fisher with the central Montana tourism agency said that since the Townhouse Inn closed on 10th Avenue South, another Town Pump property that has since been turned into a gas station, the city has lost 100 hotel rooms and the bed tax revenues have declined. Fisher said that if the hotel is built, it would mean about $30,000 going to local tourism agencies to promote Great Falls and bring more tourism dollars to the city.

Steve Walker was the manager of the Townhouse Inn and said he had to move to Belgrade for work when the hotel closed.

“I would very much like to come home,” he said.

But some remained opposed to the project.

Russ Kendall said it wasn’t that long ago that the conditions were implemented.

“How long will it be before we relieve the obligation that no more casinos are developed in the area,” he said.

Art Dickhoff said, “we are just adding to the problem at this intersection by approving this development.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners also approved annexation and zoning for the proposed Rockcress Commons, a PUD for Beargrass Village, zoning and a conditional use permit for Great Falls Clinic’s proposed 12-unit hotel, and a contract for a water and sewer rate survey.