Townhouse permits causing tension for developers, neighbors, county boards

During their Dec. 16 meeting, the Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment will discuss a letter they’d drafted to the county planning board concerning townhouses.

The ZBOA is asking the planning board to review  the county zoning regulations pertaining to suburban residential two districts and applications for multi-family residences using the special use permit for townhomes in those districts.

The issue has been raised in recent months as several SUP applications for townhomes have come before the ZBOA, particularly in the Foothills Ranch subdivision off Highway 89 between Great Falls and Belt.

During the Nov. 18 ZBOA meeting, there were four SUP applications for four townhouse properties, for a total of eight residential units.

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County planning staff recommended approval of the permits, but several other property owners in the subdivision asked that they be denied because they believed the area should remain single family homes and that townhomes would lower their property values. They also raised concern over traffic, weed management, fire protection and water usage.

The ZBOA approved all of the SUPs for those townhomes. They said that they had no legal basis for denial, despite neighbors speaking in opposition.

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The board had already approved similar townhouses in the subdivision and several said they couldn’t deny these simply because some neighbors didn’t like them.

The neighbors said that when they built or purchased homes in the subdivision they were promised that they would all be single-family homes in the area.

Staff said that a declaration of protective covenant for townhomes was filed in 2016 for Phase 3, the area where the townhomes are being planned.

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The ZBOA draft letter to the planning board states that their understanding of the SUP for a secondary dwelling in the county zoning regulations, “was originally written to address the situation in which a homeowner might be faced with the need to provide care and assistance to a parent or other related dependent person(s). By using this section, the applicant could provide housing and assistance at his residence in this special circumstance. In such a case this would seem to be the safest, least expensive, and most humane way to attend to family and avoid taxing the medical or nursing home resources of the community.”

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They wrote that recently the board had received an increasing number of applications from “developers who are using this section to seek permission to site duplexes or townhomes on lots. It seems to us this was not the original intent of the section. It may be a way for developers to make additional money, and it may provide additional housing needed in our community, but it does not seem to reflect the intent of the regulation nor to demonstrate well-considered planning.”

The ZBOA draft letter asks the planning board to consider revising the working of these sections of the regulations to make them more accurately reflect what they believe was the intention of the regulation.

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“As it currently stands, as a board, we are more or less required to grant a SUP application,” the board wrote in their draft, once the applicant meets the standards applicable to special uses in the zoning regulations. “We would appreciate it if you would please give this matter your attention as soon as possible to allow us to better address this increase in the number of applications that do not seem to correspond to the spirit and intent” of the regulation.