Planning board OK’s next West Ridge phase; downtown TIF expansion
The city planning board unanimously approved during their May 25 meeting the preliminary plat for 28 more lots in West Ridge on the northern end of the city and amendments to the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to expand the use of tax increment financing funds.
The was brief discussion of the stormwater retention pond since a neighboring property owner questioned the proposed location of the pond. Staff said for now it’s temporary but will have to create a permanent facility to serve the development and future phases since the developer has opted not to participate in the regional stormwater facility that was planned in partnership with the city and nearby Thaniel Addition.
City staff will take the project to Neighborhood Council 3 in June to address any neighborhood questions and the project will come to public meetings again for final plat, but that won’t require a public hearing.
Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said the agency supported the project and that the community needs more housing.
No one spoke in opposition to the project and the board voted 5-0 to recommend that the City Commission approve the project.
The board also unanimously voted to recommend approval of amendments to the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to create three new programs for the use of tax increment financing funds for private property owners in the downtown district.
TIF districts create specific areas of targeted development or urban renewal where a base tax level is set and the tax increment on improvements within the district go into a special fund to be used for public improvements within that district. Great Falls currently has five TIF districts.
Up till now, the city has been conservative with their use of TIF and have operated under commission-approved criteria for projects that focus on infrastructure. City staff and the city’s outside bond counsel, as well as commissioners, had exercised caution in using TIF funds since lawmakers have raised concerns over TIF districts in recent years and discussed curtailing their use.
The proposed uses in the new TIF programs are allowable under state law but the law requires that the city have a specific plan or program detailing the use of the funds.
The city’s existing plan doesn’t allow for the types of uses that are being proposed now.
The planning board voted to recommend approval of the amendments and the Downtown Development Partnership will consider the changes during their May 26 meeting.
The proposed amendments are scheduled to go to the City Commission in June for first reading and to consider a resolution of intent, then a public hearing in July.
The amendments include a proposal drafted largely by Joan Redeen of the Business Improvement District and Kellie Pierce of the Downtown Great Falls Association.
The proposal from Redeen and Pierce would set aside up to $500,000 of TIF funds annually for eligible projects.
The proposed plan would create three new programs within the downtown TIF.
The Downtown Urban Renewal Area Façade Program would provide up to a $50,000 reimbursement per project for eligible façade renovation activities.
In February, Pierce cited the Mighty Mo Brew Pub, Central Avenue Meats and the upcoming Newberry event center as examples of façade projects that have improved the look of downtown and spurred other improvements.
In October, the City Commission amended the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to specifically mention the Civic Center façade project.
“The Life Safety Code Compliance Program is designed to stimulate increased public safety and handicap accessibility improvement projects. Due to the historic nature of the downtown building inventory, many buildings are rife with building and fire code violations as well as features that impede the use and enjoyment of services and activities for those with physical and mobility impairments,” according to the staff report.
The total reimbursement available for each requested project under the Life Safety Code Compliance Program is $25,000.
The Environmental Safety Program works toward the elimination of blight using the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design and other safety and security design principles. The total reimbursement for each project is $5,000 such as exterior lighting and security cameras, which must be added to the Great Falls Police Department’s registry if they get the TIF funding.
As proposed, the program would have funding limits of $500,000 annually and each parcel would be limited to a total of $80,000 over 15 years of any combination of the categories of TIF funding.
The remaining balance of annual TIF increment earned will either be used to cover bond debt payments, such as the roughly $440,000 annual debt service for the Civic Center façade project, or left in the account for use outside of the three new programs in the existing Downtown Urban Renewal Plan.
The current balance in the downtown TIF is about $2 million and the account generates about $1 million in increment annually.
Craig Raymond, city planning director, said during the May 25 planning board meeting that the programs will help with key goals for the downtown such as promoting mixed use facilities with commercial on the lower level and residential on upper levels; as well as helping make downtown buildings ADA accessible, which can be costly for property owners, as well as promote preservation.
“We have a really unique downtown,” Raymond said, with historic buildings.
Samantha Shinaberger, board member, asked how the staff review of TIF applications in the three programs would work.
Raymond said that it would be similar to the current process with Community Development Block Grant applications with a staff planner reviewing the requests, but would make their recommendation to the planning director, or deputy director, for a final funding decision versus to the full City Commission process for any requests under $80,000.
Raymond said that some requests are small and the formal process to get commission approval can sometimes cost more in staff time than the request itself.
Initially, the proposal was to have the Downtown Development Partnership administer the program, but commissioners weren’t comfortable with that so instead pulled it to staff review since “I’m really shooting for government efficiency,” Raymond said.
Any request over $80,000 would automatically go to commissioners for consideration.
Depending on the volume of requests for TIF funding, it’s possible the department will need to hire additional staff for the proposed TIF programs, Raymond said.
“I think the potential is pretty significant,” Raymond said.