Planning board recommends that City Commission approve Wheat Ridge development

The Planning Advisory Board went against city staff’s recommendation and voted 6-3 to approve the first phase of the proposed Wheat Ridge development.

The planning board voted to recommend that the City Commission approve annexation, a Planned Unit Development zoning and the preliminary plat for the 20.98 acre parcel.

The City Commission will consider the annexation and zoning in the near future, but first the applicant has to file a Certificate of Survey for the parcel, according to city staff. The commission has the final say on the annexation, zoning and preliminary plat.
City planning board votes to postpone Wheat Ridge decision

The proposal includes three mixed use lots and 37 single-family residential lots.

The parcel is part of a larger 227.63 acre property owned by the KYSO Corporation, which is owned by Dan Huestis, who also owns the roughly 3,000 acres being considered for the Madison Food Park to the near east of the Wheat Ridge proposal.

The planning board held a public hearing about the proposed Wheat Ridge project on March 27, but the board voted to postpone their vote to the April 24 meeting. Both meetings lasted about three hours.
City staff recommending denial of Wheat Ridge annexation, zoning

At the beginning of Tuesday’s discussion on Wheat Ridge, Amanda Thompson, a planning board member, disclosed that her mother-in-law Terry Thompson spoke in favor of the project during the March 27 meeting but that the two had not discussed the proposal. Terry Thompson heads the Great Falls Association of REALTORS. Amanda Thompson also said she works for a company that owns property across the street from the proposed Wheat Ridge development.

She said she had discussed those connections with city staff and determined that it didn’t present a conflict of interest and she participated in the board discussion and the vote on the project.

City staff reviewed their concerns that include stormwater management, especially in light of a $2 million claim filed against the city over stormwater and groundwater by a property owner southwest of the proposed Wheat Ridge development.

City staff said that if Wheat Ridge is approved and storm water issues intensify downstream from the area, the city could be liable and at risk for litigation.

Staff also expressed concern related to public safety services, in terms of response times and access for fire engines. Connectivity with the existing city street system was also a concern and the potential for conflict with missions at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The city’s opposition to the proposal is “not simply an issue of whether the city should grow or not,” said Tom Micuda, deputy planning director.

Abigail St. Lawrence, an attorney for the developers, said during the meeting that their team indicates their proposed gravel road as emergency access could support the weight of a fire engine. She said the city could assess impact fees on the developers to address public safety needs, though the City Commission has been adverse to impact fees for about the last 30 years.

The city proposed that the developers use a stormwater retention pond for the development, but the developers argue that then becomes a water rights issue if they deprive anyone downstream of surface or groundwater.

Spencer Woith, one of the developers, said the first phase of the project is a small portion of the master plan, allowing them to address storm water issues over time before the full project of an estimated 400 lots is complete.

Woith said that construction on the first phase likely won’t start until next year.

City staff said that when the east side Wal-Mart was approved, the hope was that properties between the retail center and the city limit to the west would develop first to allow for better connectivity in the area.

Loren Smith, owner of the KOA campground said he supports the project.

Board member Dave Bertleson moved to deny the annexation.

“I love this project, I just don’t like where it’s at,” he said.

He said approving the project sends a message to the Defense Department related to the importance of Malmstrom Air Force Base to the community.

“If we approve this…you can be damn sure Great Falls is off the map for anything with a fixed wing mission,” Bertleson said. “The runway is an asset.”

The runway was deactivated in 1997 when the last fixed wing flying mission left Malmstrom, but a portion of the runway area is still used by the UH-1N Huey helicopters that support security in the missile complex. Those helicopters are scheduled to be replaced soon and several construction projects are planned to accommodate those new aircraft, build a new missile maintenance dispatch facility and a new facility to house the tactical response force that rides with the 40th Helicopter Squadron.

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During board discussion several board members said they didn’t see any hope for a new flying mission at Malmstrom and a board member suggested that the Air Force was moving toward unmanned aerial systems. The unmanned aircraft used by the Air Force are fixed wing aircraft that need runways for takeoff and landing.

Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota got unmanned aerial system mission after the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure round moved their tanker mission. The base has since worked with the local community and private developers to create a commercial unmanned aerial system testing center in a town roughly the same size as Great Falls.

Mike Wedekind, planning board member, said “it’s a tough decision. We want to show that we care,” to the military.

Scot Davis, planning board member, made the motions to approve the annexation, zoning and preliminary plat.

“We need dirt, I’m a builder,” he said. Davis said the proposed housing development would be a benefit to Malmstrom.

Board member Tony Houtz voted in favor of the annexation and zoning, but against the preliminary plat since he said there were still a lot of unknowns and he wanted more details to be worked out. The preliminary plat was approved 5-4.