Commission denies permit for M&D Construction, forcing company to scale back operations or relocate

City Commissioners broke with the staff recommendation and denied a conditional use permit for M&D Construction during their Jan. 2 meeting.

The company has been at their 611 8th Ave. N. location since 2011 and another construction company was on the property previously.

The property is zoned M-2 mixed use transitional and the company had expanded operations at that site without obtaining a conditional use permit to operate a contractor yard, type two.

Earlier this year, a citizen complained about the change in land use and staff determined that the only way to address the complaint and keep the business on the property was a conditional use permit. In city code, a contractor yard, type two is allowed in the M-2 zoning district with a permit.

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After getting the complaint, staff met with the M&D representatives to discuss property improvements that would be needed for the CUP to be considered compatible with the R-9 mixed residential area to the south of 8th Avenue North, according to the planning department. Those improvements included decorative fencing, berming, landscaping, appropriate access and parking to improve the transition from the existing contractor yard to the residential area. Repairing the sidewalk along 8th Avenue North was also included.

Commission to consider two conditional use permits, one would allow business to stay in place, other would allow new construction

Spencer Woith, with Woith Engineering, is working with M&D Construction and said during the Jan. 2 commission meeting that the company was amenable to all of the improvements included as conditions of the permit.

Some area residents expressed concern with continued expansion, but Woith said “geographically, there’s not much room to expand.”

The business owner, Rhett Hulett, said “we’re at our max,” with 30 employees and “I want to be a good neighbor. We want to be a positive part of that part of town.”

Traffic was identified as a neighborhood concern and Woith said there were other acceptable uses in that zoning district that would generate more traffic, though truck traffic has increased recently with M&D’s expansion of operations on the property.

Other permitted uses in the M-2 zoning include residential, day care and nursing homes, hotel/motel, restaurants, funeral home, small animal vet clinic, vehicle services, community center, worship facility, health care clinic, taxicab dispatch terminal and others. Uses allowable with a conditional use permit include helipad, bus terminal and microbreweries.

There are other similar companies in the area, but their zoning and rules are different.

Johnson Madison Lumber, at 815 10th St. N., is zoned M-2 and would be categorized as construction material sales which is not allowed in M-2, but the company has existed at that location for some time, and pre-dated the 2005 citywide zoning update, and was given legal non-conforming status, according to city planning. That means they are allowed to continue to exist as they are and would be subject to limitations if they ever wanted to grow. City maps from 1900 indicate a lumber yard on the site of what is now Johnson Madison.

United Materials at 2100 9th Ave. N. is zoned I-1 light industrial and their use is allowed unconditionally in that zoning district, according to city planning.

M&D initially had ‘existing of legal non-conforming’ status, but grew beyond that and in the M-2 district that requires a conditional use permit.

Brett Doney, head of the Great Falls Development Authority, said M&D has been in Great Falls for 30 year and “that whole side of town was one of the original industrial areas.”

Anders Blewett, lives in the 200 block of 3rd Avenue North and opposed the permit, saying a better use of the property would be residential and retail.

“This is part of the core of the city,” Anders Blewett said. “I would prefer that there not be heavy machinery in the core of our city.”

Myrl Nardinger lives in the area and said that storage units would be better than the current use.

“It’s pretty hard to cover up semis,” he said.

Nardinger said he’d heard good things about the company and he’s not opposed to business, but “I don’t think this is a good spot.”

Zander Blewett from the 300 block of 4th Avenue North said “this is a massive change. I’m in great opposition to this.”

Commissioner Bill Bronson made the motion to deny the permit.

In the early 1900s, when a feed store was operating on the property, there wasn’t zoning in the city, Bronson said. Over recent years with the city’s growth policy and the 2005 revision of the land development code, his interpretation of the goal of the M-2 zoning district was to encourage more residential development.

Bronson said he recognized that the applicant was trying to come into compliance, but “these improvements are still not consistent” with what we were intending to do in that area.

Bronson said he supports business, but wanted to protect the residential area around 8th Avenue North and Gibson Park.

When commissioners make a motion that differs from the staff recommendation, which comes with findings of fact, they have to lay out their own findings of fact as a basis of decision.

Bronson said he didn’t believe the conditional use permit was consistent with the growth policy; that a large contractor yard doesn’t stabilize the entire neighborhood; that the applicant hadn’t proved the action wouldn’t be detrimental to the area and public interest or impede normal and orderly development in the surrounding area or potentially be a negative impact to Gibson Park; the improvements aren’t enough to outweigh other considerations; concern about the ingress/egress since the “goofy” intersection isn’t the best way to handle traffic in the area; and encouraging truck traffic in that area isn’t wise.

Neighborhood Council 7 voted in favor of the CUP during a November meeting. The Planning Advisory Board/Zoning Commission considered the request during a Nov. 28 meeting. Five people expressed concern about traffic, potential encroachment of a business use into the neighborhood and possible noise and fumes. The zoning commission voted to recommend approval of the CUP.

Commissioner Mary Sheehy Moe said she watched the video of the planning board meeting on the permit and read the neighborhood council minutes. She said she was frustrated that the application rose to the commission level without addressing the concerns and that she shares those concerns.

Commissioner Owen Robinson said he believes the company will outgrow the area and that there’s a better use for the property.

Commissioner Tracy Houck asked if the commission denies then permit, what would happen next.

The use as it currently exists could not remain, said Planning Director Craig Raymond, and the company would either have to move or considerable scale back operations to be in compliance with the prior legal nonconforming use. If M&D chose to move, Raymond said the city would need to give them time and the property could sit vacant indefinitely without the increased taxable value that would have come from the improvements.

Mayor Bob Kelly said the commission has a responsibility to the citizen who lodged the complaint and that he was uneasy with changing the zoning after someone complained about the property.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to deny the conditional use permit.

After the meeting, Hulett told The Electric that he wasn’t sure what he’d do next.

Doney told The Electric that the commissions decision is cause for concern in economic development since developers are looking for some level of certainty in the process.

“Obviously, the commission is the final arbiter, and sometimes you just don’t know how they’re going to act until they act,” Doney said.

“But these are very expensive processes and more certainty reduces risk” he said.

Doney and the GFDA team have been encouraging developers to meet with city planning before making commitments to ensure they know what’s needed and to avoid any costly surprises.

Other concerns are the time it takes to get land use approvals and building permits.

Doney said he recently met with a group on site selection team and asked them why they weren’t doing more in Great Falls. The group said that if it takes three to six months to get land approvals and permits, a location is eliminated.

Much of the city’s process related to land use decisions is dictated by state law and city code and in recent years the planning department has worked to simplify the process, but it still generally takes longer than two months if any zoning changes or land use approvals are needed since those typically require planning board and commission approval. New construction also typically requires Design Review Board approvals.

“It’s problematic that our process takes so long,” Doney said. “If we want to attract more investment, we have to be competitive, that’s just a fact of life.”