City, GFPS at odds over development regulations

The city planning department put a stop work order Tuesday afternoon on work at Great Falls High School.

The Great Falls School District had closed a street, begun demolition of a city sidewalk and was cutting down trees without obtaining any city approvals or permits.

The district has submitted civil plans for the project, according to Craig Raymond, city planning director, but had not submitted a dust control or stormwater pollution prevention plans for the construction phases.

Tammy Lacey, GFPS superintendent, said it was largely a communication issue and the district was working with the city to correct the problem.

The action comes amidst discussions between the city and GFPS over which, if any, city development rules apply to the school district’s construction plans.
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In May, GFPS requested a city Board of Adjustment meeting and that has been scheduled for June 18 at 3 p.m.

The hearing is required under state law when an agency proposes to use public land contrary to local zoning regulations.

The projects proposed to be developed contrary to local zoning regulations are:

  • Great Falls High School Addition and Renovation
  • Charles M. Russell High School Multipurpose Facility and Addition
  • Giant Springs Elementary School
  • Longfellow Elementary School

For most of these projects, GFPS is proposing landscaping and parking that doesn’t meet city development standards.

State law allows school districts to operate outside local zoning regulations. But city officials contend that there’s a difference between zoning and development standards and that development standards do apply to the school district.

“They’re not one in the same,” Raymond said.

Raymond, city planning director, points to a section of code that defines municipal zoning as local authority to “regulate and restrict the height, number of stories, and size of buildings and other structures; the percentage of lot that may be occupied; the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces; the density of population; and the location and use of buildings, structures, and land for trade, industry, residence, or other purposes.”

City planning staff have consulted with city legal staff, who have also consulted with legal staff in other cities who agree with the city’s interpretation that development standards aren’t the same as zoning regulations and do apply to school districts.

A section of Montana law does prohibit schools being built, enlarged or remodeled until the plans and specifications for construction have been submitted to and approved, in this case, by the city planning department. The plans must show in detail the proposed construction of the building and show conformity with the applicable building code.

Plans for Great Falls High have been submitted and are under review by city planning staff. Longfellow Elementary has yet to be designed.

Giant Springs Elementary is nearly complete, but is included in the request for the Board of Adjustment hearing, creating frustration for city staff since it appears that GFPS doesn’t plan to adhere to plans already submitted and approved by the city, according to city planning staff.

The school district’s interpretation of state law is that no local development standards, to include landscaping, parking or setbacks, apply to school construction.

Lacey, GFPS superintendent, points to a section of state law that details powers denied to local governments, which includes: “any power that applies to or affects the public school system, except that a local unit may impose an assessment reasonably related to the cost of any service or special benefit provided by the unit and shall exercise any power that it is required by law to exercise regarding the public school system.”

GFPS is also referencing a 2017 court case involving the Helena school district and the city, though the case is related specifically to a historic preservation ordinance.

In that case, Judge Michael McMahon wrote that under state law, “Helena, a local government operating under a self-governing power, may not exercise any power prohibited by the Montana Constitution, state law or the charter itself. The court has absolutely no reasonable doubt that under Montana’s Constitution and controlling statutes, Helena is pre-empted and prohibited from exercising any power ‘that applies to or affects the public school system.'”

Parking requirements are specifically listed in city code by land use type and not under zoning districts, with the exception of provisions for C-4 and C-5 zoning for central business core and central business periphery districts. For example, the city code specifically lists the requirement for elementary and junior high schools as two parking spots per classroom or one per five seats in the auditorium/gymnasium or one per 50 square feet of assemblage area, whichever is greater.
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For senior high, colleges or universities, the requirement is two parking spots per classroom plus one for each four students the school is designed to accommodate or one per five seats in the auditorium/gymnasium or one per 50 square feet of assemblage, whichever is greater.

City code would require that GFPS add a sidewalk near C.M. Russell High School, but the district said it’s not an area that gets used by pedestrians so it doesn’t make sense.

Lacey said there are sidewalks where students do walk, such as to Sam’s Club for lunch, but it wouldn’t be useful to add a sidewalk along 14th Avenue Northwest.

Andy Becker of Hulteng Inc. is representing GFPS in the projects, and said it would cost more than $100,000 to install that section of sidewalk.

City planning staff have said there’s been a lack of communication from the school district about the plans for the school construction projects that has made it difficult for the city to determine how it can work with the district to find creative solutions to their issues with the development standards.

Lacey told The Electric that GFPS prefers to present all their plans in public meetings versus in meetings with the city to ensure transparency. The district has discussed building plans in its public board meetings and during public meetings during the 2016 levy discussions. The GFPS website includes a number of documents and renderings related to the 2016 facilities levy and construction plans.

The city’s Board of Adjustment serves as the venue for the school district to hold a public hearing, but the board has no authority to make any decisions and there are no items to vote on during the hearing. This board is completely separate from the Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Lacey said the hearing provides an opportunity for a question and answer period and the district will listen and take any ideas from the public into consideration.

Last year, GFPS went before the Cascade County ZBOA for a project at the old Little Russell Elementary School at 2615 Central Ave. W.

Lacey said the public comment during that hearing gave GFPS ideas and the district made some changes related to the intersection, fencing and other items for the project.

For the June 18 hearing, Lacey said GFPS will present their plans and why they need the alterations. Lacey said the district is trying to use taxpayer money wisely and would rather spend it on educational space.

Lacey said GFPS isn’t asking to totally disregard the zoning regulations, but instead wants to modify some of the Title 17, the city’s land use code that contains parking, landscaping and zoning regulations.

“Landscaping for a convenience store is a lot different than a school,” Lacey said. “We’ll do landscaping that makes sense. We value landscaping and want it to look nice.”

The district is planning to reduce the overall tree count at Great Falls High and reduce shrubbery near the building, in the interest of safety and security.

In a letter from the school resource officers, who are Great Falls Police officers assigned to the schools, they write that they are opposed to any shrubs/bushes/plants that are more than two to three feet above ground level. They’re also opposed to trees and foliage that would obstruct the views from windows in the building.

During a County-City Historic Preservation Advisory Commission meeting on June 13, Lacey said the district is going to great lengths to preserve trees.

She said there are 262 existing trees on the GFH campus and of those, 116 will remain. But GFPS is planning to cut down 73 trees, and will plant 64 boulevard trees, for a net loss of nine trees.

On Thursday, Lacey updated trustees on the tree numbers and said she misread her notes during the HPAC meeting. She told trustees the current number of trees at GFH is 189 and the post-construction number will be 180.

Lacey has suggested that the public look at renderings on the GFPS website of the current views of campus and renderings of the future view where a few trees will be removed. She said the view is largely unchanged. Documents were also added Wednesday showing the tree counts and locations on the GFH campus.

But those new plantings won’t be the same as the mature trees currently on the campus, some HPAC members commented toward the end of their meeting, after the GFPS contingent had left.

During the HPAC meeting, local architects Phil Faccenda and Darrell Swanson presented concerns about the GFH project. related to preserving the historic core of the campus and accessibility.

Several HPAC members commented that their board was not the appropriate place to review building design and expressed frustration that the concerns were coming to them so late in the process.

The GFH project is scheduled to go before the city’s Design Review Board on June 25.

“We’re closing the barn door after the horses are out,” said Ken Sievert, HPAC member who had previously worked on GFH projects in the 19070s. “We don’t have any role in design.”

Rich Ecke, an HPAC member, said the DRB would likely address some of Faccenda’s design concerns and though landscaping might not be a historical issue, greenspace enhances the overall look of the campus.

“I guess you don’t want to pave paradise to put up a parking lot,” Ecke said, referencing lyrics from the song Big Yellow Taxi originally recorded by Joni Mitchell in 1970.

Peter Jennings, an HPAC member, said he appreciated the opportunity for comment, but would prefer that in the future, the board, city and developers work a little harder to have these types of conversations earlier in the process.

Ken Robison, an HPAC member, agreed.

“This is ridiculously late in the game,” he said.