City approves lot aggregation for Great Falls High; work continuing on site plans for GFPS construction projects

As part of the Great Falls High School construction project, Great Falls Public Schools have requested to aggregate 22.219 acres, or 91 lots, into a single development parcel.

This will include multiple previously vacated alley and street rights of way, according to city staff.

The City Commission approved the aggregation during their Tuesday night meeting.

The aggregation is necessary to go through the amended plat process because of a state law provision, which states: “within a platted subdivision filed with the county clerk and recorder, a division, redesign, or rearrangement of lots that results in an increase in the number of lots or that redesigns or rearranges six or more lots must be reviewed and approved by the governing body before an amended plat may be filed with the county clerk and recorder.”

City to consider GFPS request to aggregate lots for Great Falls High

Since the GFPS project includes a 62,000 square foot addition connecting the south campus building to the historic building and other improvements are proposed to cross over existing parcel boundaries, the city directed GFPS to submit the lot aggregation.

The lot aggregation request is one of several steps in the process that also include: ongoing discussion of the project with the City/County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission; future review of the project by the City’s Design Review Board; and a June 18 public hearing requested by the District to address the applicability of local zoning regulations to the project.

The proposed plat also identifies new water line easements that reflect proposed utility improvements being reviewed by the Public Works Department. The finalization of easements to be added or removed has been identified as a condition of approval.

The city’s planning board previously recommended approval of the aggregation.

On June 18, the city’s Board of Adjustment held a public hearing as required by state law when a government agency, in this case GFPS, plans to develop land contrary to local zoning regulations.

City, GFPS at odds over development regulations

State law allows the school board to develop contrary to local zoning, but the city contends that GFPS is still subject to development standards such as parking, landscaping, signage and setback requirements.

In the hearing, the Board of Adjustment has no power or authority to vote on proposals or place conditions on the school district, but it provides the public an opportunity to ask questions.

On Monday, despite the inability to vote, two board members recused themselves entirely from discussion since they work for companies involved in the GFPS projects.

Craig Raymond, city planning director, said that even though GFPS may be able to develop contrary to zoning, the district still needs permits.

“The school district should not make the mistake of assuming that MCA 76-2-402 or any other statute allows the school district to make decisions or take actions that are under the sole and undeniable authority of the city to make or authorize,” Raymond said during the hearing. “As we found out on two different occasions last week, there seems to be some misunderstanding of this key fact. This includes demolition of property within the city rights-of-way without permits and deciding to alter public infrastructure without informing the city let alone asking for review and approval.”

Last week, the city issued a stop work order after a contractor for GFPS closed a city street, began demolition of a city sidewalk and removed trees without proper permits from the city. The stop work order is still in effect and no permits had been issued as of Tuesday evening.

Tammy Lacey, GFPS superintendent, said there are some differences of interpretation, but that the district considers the city a partner in meeting district goals.

The district is focused on student safety and that’s a driver in some of its landscaping decisions, Lacey said. The school resource officers oppose trees and shrubs that obstruct views and want to eliminate areas that are hard to search, like low-lying areas under shrubs, Lacey said. They also want to avoid having trees near buildings to prevent people from being able to climb them and gain access to the building, Lacey said.

At Great Falls High, the city code would require trees be spaced every 35 feet, but the district is planning to place trees 70 feet apart to avoid a thick canopy for security reasons, Lacey said.

According to the city, GFPS did not request a waiver for the wider tree spacing in the boulevard at Giant Springs school.

Many of the trees being removed on the GFH campus are to make room for the new connector building and some are due to the required fire and emergency access, Jana Cooper said. She’s a landscape architect with TD&H on the project.

Ongoing maintenance costs for landscaping is also a concern, Lacey said. The district would prefer to put that money into educational programming than ornamental shrubs, Lacey said.

The current plan calls for a net loss of nine trees, according to GFPS.

Board of Adjustment member Krista Smith asked how much it would cost for GFPS to comply with city landscaping requirements.

None of the officials in the room had a budget estimate, but Raymond said the GFH plan is about 13 trees short of the city requirement and hasn’t had enough time to analyze the shrub counts since the city was seeing new plans during the Board of Adjustment hearing.

At Giant Springs Elementary, GFPS described plans to deviate from city landscaping requirements, though the city had already reviewed and approved designs last year.

“Students do better on lawn” than shrubs, Lacey said.

At that school, they district is planned to reduce the shrub count by a third to keep some trees and anticipates a similar reduction at Longfellow Elementary, which has yet to be designed.

Tom Micuda, deputy planning director, said that the city had already approved a 50 percent design waiver for a reduction in landscaping at Giant Springs.

“It is a reduction on top of a previous reduction,” Micuda said.

That reduction meant 22 on-site trees instead of 44 and 154 shrubs instead of 308.

Micuda told The Electric that during that DRB and design waiver process, the architect for the project made a good argument for the need for open space at the school, as well as student safety and budget considerations. Micuda said city planning staff also worked with GFPS and Forde Nursery last year to change the shrub species to address the school safety issue.

At C.M. Russell High School, Lacey said the city code would require the installation of about 1,200 lineal feet of 5-foot sidewalk along 14th Avenue Northwest. GFPS estimated that would cost about $100,000 and Lacey said it wouldn’t get much pedestrian use and worried about what might happen to the 24 trees along that stretch if the sidewalk were to be installed.

In the proposal presented to the Design Review Board last summer, the plans included a 6-foot sidewalk along 14th Avenue Northwest. That plan was approved by the city.

Raymond said the city had since offered to fund the installation of the sidewalk, though GFPS would still be responsible for snow removal and maintenance.

Raymond said the city has been looking at that area for a while and the need for sidewalks. He said the city has deferred installation agreements with other businesses in the area to get sidewalks installed on the southern side of 14th Avenue Northwest.

“Pedestrian facilities are important,” Raymond said.

Nancy Rafferty, an area resident, said she was in favor of the sidewalks being installed. She said the sidewalk was originally included in the GFPS pre-construction meetings during the summer of 2017. Rafferty said GFPS should be held to the same standards as other property owners.

Other areas where GFPS might be out of compliance with city code include signage on CMR buildings. Lacey said GFPS has donors that might want signage that exceeds the allowable amount under city code.

Toward the end of meeting, Board of Adjustment member David Saenz said he appreciates donors, but “hates for them to dictate” on signage when there are city regulations.

Plans for GFH are scheduled to go before the city’s Design Review Board on June 25.