Variances approved for new North 40 Outfitters location
North 40 Outfitters was approved for all of its requested variances for the former Kmart and Big Bear property during Thursday’s city Board of Adjustment meeting.
The board had a quorum since the City Commission appointed Aspen Northerner and Joe McMillen during their Oct. 2 meeting. One BOA member, Krista Smith, recused herself from the matter since she’s married to the architect on the project.
The variance approval includes conditions requiring that the project be consistent with all other codes, ordinances and regulations of the city, state and any other applicable regulatory agency; and that an updated recorded shared parking agreement be provided by the applicant to the planning department for review and approval.
North 40 asked for variances from five city code requirements pertaining to parking and landscaping.
The variances are:
- Allowing outdoor storage and displays for merchandise, which is prohibited in city code;
- a reduction in the number of required boulevard trees;
- being excused from the code requirement that 15 percent of the total property be landscaped;
- a reduction in the number of curbed and landscaped islands;
- and being excused from the code requirement of a minimum of one tree and seven shrubs per 400 square feet.
City staff supported the request for the 15 percent landscaping since that would equate to almost two acres and more than 200 trees.
“We’ve conveyed to the applicant all along that that’s not realistic,” and supported the variance request, said Tom Micuda, deputy planning director.
The code is designed better for new development than redevelopment of properties and that’s why the variance process is included in the code as well, Micuda said.
A BOA member asked what percentage of the property was included in the site plan. The North 40 team didn’t have an estimate and Tyson Kraft, one of the architects on the project, said that the team didn’t really try to meet that requirement since it’s “one of the more lax” requirements. Kraft is also a member of the city’s Design Review Board.
The North 40 site plan comes close to meeting the requirement on landscaped islands and staff also supported that variance request. City staff said the reality of large trucks, trailers, and other large vehicles that would likely frequent the location met the hardship requirements on that code requirement.
Staff did not support the request for a variance from the boulevard tree requirement since to meet strict compliance, North 40 would only need to add two more trees on the Northwest Bypass and five trees on 3rd Street Northwest, Micuda said.
North 40 said in their variance application and during their testimony on Thursday that if they added those trees, it would limit visibility of their store and that could impact their sales and bottom line.
The development is adjoining properties that have installed trees and remain visible, staff said. They said the two-story bank building on the corner is the biggest visibility issue, not the trees.
“We believe the visibility issue is not significant enough to support the variance,” Micuda said.
Staff said that the city could support the parking variance request, but needed more information that what was provided in the staff report, particularly an actual signed document from the applicant and Buffalo Wild Wings on the updated agreement North 40 said it had reached.
Curt Wike of North 40 said during the BOA meeting that “we’re just setting it up on a handshake agreement. We have agreed shared parking can work for both os us.”
But the BOA approval was conditioned with a requirement that a document be submitted to the city. Shared parking agreements are legal documents that run with the property regardless of ownership.
Curt Wike said that Buffalo Wild Wings ownership initially had concerns about outdoor merchandise blocking their restaurant but have worked together to find a mutually beneficial solution. BWW’s ownership submitted a letter of support for the North 40 variance requests.
The outdoor merchandise areas are critical to North 40’s business, according to their application and testimony. The plan includes a screened area as well as seasonal displays in the parking lot.
During his presentation, Curt Wike said that the BOA should also approve a variance for their sign, but that wasn’t included in the application and no information had been provided to staff, nor was that request part of the public notices and staff said it would not be proper to include that in discussion.
Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said the North 40 proposal would be a major improvement to the large vacant lot.
He said staff’s job is to enforce the rules established by elected officials and since those rules don’t always work for business, “this is exactly why your board exists.”
Representatives from Opportunity Bank, Days Inn, Buffalo Wild Wings, Macek Companies Inc, Dick Anderson Construction, the Homebuilders Association and other members of the business community submitted letters of support for North 40’s variance request.
It took two tries to get a motion approved since there seemed to be some confusion among board members as to what the first motion actually was.
BOA member Kyle Palagi moved to approve all of North 40’s variance requests since he felt that there was hardship for the applicant on boulevard trees.
Jule Stuver, board chair, said that since every other business in town has to comply with the rules, North 40 shouldn’t be the exception over a couple of trees.
“To me, it’s just not to a level that I consider a hardship,” Stuver said.
New BOA member Joe McMillen said that the nearby West Bank Landing development was complying with landscaping codes and “we want our town to look good. I think we should hold our code on the boulevards.”
Northern said it seemed that there was more of a safety concern as it relates to visibility and boulevard trees since there aren’t intersections at access points on the property and large vehicles will have to wait and maneuver traffic to get in and out of the parking lot.
The initial vote was 2-2 since there was confusion over the motion.
McMillen then moved to approve the variances as requested by the applicant, which was substantively the same as the previous motion and that passed 4-0.