City approves changes to landscape code; rezone, lot aggregation, road vacation for Russell Museum

Updated 5 p.m. April 8 to add more information on the commission actions.

City Commissioners voted during their April 7 meeting to approve changes to the landscaping code that would lessen requirements for trees and shrubs in many instances for commercial and residential development; and approved a rezone, lot aggregation and street vacation for the C.M. Russell Museum.

Rezone, aggregation and street vacation for Russell Museum up for vote at April 7 commission meeting

Landscaping code changes up for consideration at April 7 city commission meeting

The meeting was held via video conferencing with commissioners each in their homes, city staff in the Civic Center with some members of the public, and the public was able to email comments in advance or call in during the meeting.

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The call in feature was used for the first time during the April 7 meeting and several members of the public and applicants for projects used the option.

Commissioners also voted to allow Great Falls Fire Rescue to apply for two grants through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, one for a new aerial fire truck, the other for safety and decontamination equipment.

City seeking grants for new aerial truck, safety and decontamination gear

Commissioners voted to indefinitely postpone consideration of creating an energy task force.

Landscaping code changes

Staff proposed reducing the landscaping requirements for a number of land uses, adding design flexibility and removing outdated sections of code.

Those changes were based on regular complaints from developers about the number of trees and shrubs required, which often add cost and limit flexibility for their projects, they said.

The proposed changes were presented to commissioners in a January work session and to the development community in a January town hall and during planning board meetings.

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Staff also proposed taking the list of allowable street trees out of the municipal code so that staff can better adapt to changing conditions, particularly tree diseases, city planner Lonnie Hill said during a January meeting. Commissioners unanimously approved that action during the April 7 meeting.

Erin Borland, a city planner and former landscape designer, said that the reduced requirements could give developers more flexibility with their site designs and ideally, they will integrate their landscaping with storm water management systems to accomplish multiple things at once.

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During the April 7 meeting, Commissioner Mary Moe said one resident had contacted her about the proposed changes expressing concern over reducing the number of required trees.

The resident argued that there are known benefits of trees in urban settings, and Moe agreed so voted against the code changes.

Commissioner Rick Tryon said the code changes weren’t about the efficacy of trees, but about the city requiring a business to plant trees.

The changes, Tryon said, are “going to help development in our town.”

He said developers can still plant more trees and shrubs if they so desire.

The landscape code and other development review process changes that are in the works are “gonna help our city grow,” Tryon said.

Commissioner Tracy Houck said she had some concerns but voted in favor of the changes.

Her concern is that “we are lowering our standard of what our community needs with this.”

She said the reduced requirement might entice development, but there’s also quality of life issues and that the community has said it wants parks and trees.

Commissioners approved the changes 4-1, with Moe dissenting.

The changes include a reduction in the number of required trees for single and two family residences. The code would still require that turf grass or ground cover plants cover at least 50 percent of the lot area not covered by a structures, but the change requires at least one interior tree in addition to the required boulevard trees. The existing code requires one tree per 1,500 square foot of net lot area.
Process underway to update city land development code

The changes also codify design flexibility using low maintenance plants, sculptures and boulders into landscaping to give developers more options. Staff has been testing those ideas with some recent projects, including West Bank Landing and is now building that into the code.

The changes allow developers to substitute two perennials or one ornamental grass for one shrub to up to 30 percent of the total required shrubs; nine cubic feet of sculpture integrated into the landscaping can substitute for one shrub up to 10 percent of the required shrubs; and each two foot boulder or larger can substitute for up to one shrub up to 10 percent of the total required shrubs.

Previously, the code required 1 boulevard tree per 35 lineal feet for non-residential developments. The new code reduces that to one per 50 lineal feet and excludes driveways, sidewalks or other approved hard surfaces from that calculation.

Using one existing project, staff said the previous code would require 17 boulevard trees for the project while the new code would require 10.

Planting rates are also be reduced under the revised code.

Previous code for project sites under two areas required one tree and seven shrubs for every 400 square feet of required landscaping. The revised code would require one tree and four shrubs for every 400 square feet.

Staff used the example of a one-third acre site with 2,176 square feet of interior landscaping.

The previous code would require six trees and 39 shrubs.

The revised code would require five trees, a 17 percent reduction, and 22 shrubs, a 43 percent reduction.

For project sites two acres and larger, the previous code required one tree and seven shrubs per 400 square feet. The revised code would require one tree and four shrubs per 500 square feet.

Using an example of a two acre site with 13,038 square feet of interior landscaping area, the previous code required 33 trees and 229 shrubs.

The revised code would require 26 trees, a 21 percent reduction, and 105 shrubs, a 54 percent reduction.

Russell Museum expansion

Commissioners also unanimously approved requests from the Russell Museum for rezoning some parcels, vacating 5th Street North between 12th and 13th Streets and aggregating parcels.

Tryon asked if there was a need to do it now and asked whether another public hearing could be held since he felt the public hadn’t had enough of a chance to weigh in.

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Other commissioners disagreed with him and said there had been opportunity to comment through the city’s process at Neighborhood Council meetings and the planning board, as well as through written comment or by phone on April 7.

Tom Figarelle, the museum’s executive director, said the museum had distributed fliers to residents in a three-block radius twice informing them of the museum’s activities and plans and had invited residents within a 1.5 block radius to the museum for a discussion on those plans.

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Figarelle called into the April 7 meeting and said the requests were part of the long-term vision for the museum that had started in the 1990s when the museum started acquiring properties across the street. The museum acquired the last remaining properties last year thanks to a donation.

Figarrelle said the museum is in discussions with a donor that might allow them to move forward with some of the work, to include adding parking, greenspace and more space for outdoor art.

Rezone, aggregation considered for Russell Museum’s future expansion

He said that visitorship will likely be down this year due to COVID-19 and that makes it a good time to do construction work that might be disruptive to the visitor experience.

Down the road, the museum will look at expanding its footprint since currently, it’s at capacity when the auction art is in the museum as it is now.

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A larger museum would allow for more gallery space and programming, he said, and enhance the visitor experience.

“The facility suits our needs, but it is not the same standard our collection is,” Figarelle said during the April 7 meeting.

He again said that the museum has no intention of hosting frequent large public events or concerts in the future. He said in a previous meeting the museum does not intend to move the Western Art Week auction to the museum, even if it expands.