Planning board changes direction, recommends approval of Dicks RV Park zone change for apartment complex

After a initial move to recommend denial of the proposed 531-unit apartment complex on the Dick’s RV Park property, several members of the planning board changed their mind and voted to recommend approval during their Jan. 10 meeting.

It was the second hearing on the request since the board essentially voted to deny the project during their December meeting when they intended to postpone the decision until their next meeting.

During the Jan. 10 meeting, the board rescinded their December vote and reopened the public hearing.

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New board member Julie Essex said she was concerned about displacing the current RV park residents and traffic.

She said there’s a “perceived pressure” to increase housing in the city and that the larger issue is people moving in with cash and purchasing lower-end homes, pushing people in that bracket out.

Essex said that since the project is market rate apartments, it won’t address the housing need.

Craig Raymond interrupted the board to caution them on discussing income levels and social classes as those aren’t typically legal justifications for land use decisions and reminded the board that they needed a motion for board discussion.

Tory Mills, board member, moved to approved the requesting zone change for the project, but no board member seconded, killing the motion.

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Raymond reminded the board that if the wanted to deny the project, they needed to develop findings to support that action.

Lindsey Gray, board member, moved to recommend denial of the project and Essex seconded.

Tom Micuda, deputy planning director, asked the board to describe or explain their concerns so staff could help them develop findings.

Essex said her concern was displacing the existing residents, though “I know this has nothing to do with zoning.”

She said that they might move their RVs to parking lots or along the river or other undesirable places, “of course this is all supposition.”

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Dave Bertelsen, board chair, said he agreed and had concerns about traffic.

He said he wanted the traffic study to have included 6th Street, a concern he did not specifically raise during the first public hearing.

The city’s transportation planned explained that the city contracted a third-party consultant of traffic engineers to conduct the study and they didn’t include that intersection since traffic disperses further from the project and it’s harder to determine impact further away.

Micuda asked Gray for her concerns since she made the motion to recommend denial.

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Dicks RV park renderingShe said it was “interesting and concerning” that it would be the largest apartment complex in the city with only one access point.

Staff had explained during the December and January meetings that there was a secondary emergency access point included in the plan but the site location precluded other access points.

Information on the emergency access point, as well as the full traffic study, was included in the staff report for both meetings on the project.

“Seems kind of crazy to me that it’s going to be so large and have only one point of entry,” Gray said.

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Bertelsen said that the board had been prodevelopment and approved most multifamily projects in recent years.

He said that the view coming into the city from the interstate and didn’t think a view of apartments was ideal.

“You’re gonna see these big walls coming into town,” Bertelsen said. It’s the owner’s right to develop his property however he wishes,” but said he thought there were better options such as 30-50 residential lots.

The traffic study found that the project wouldn’t have enough impact to traffic to change the levels of service at the nearby intersections, but one had a C-rating because of the short turn signal since fewer cars are typically waiting in that direction, according to staff.

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Mills said they would set a precedent that any development with a C-rating for traffic would get denied.

Essex said it was about “preserving the beauty and integrity of the city.”

Mills: “With a trailer park?”

Essex said she didn’t want to create a choke point with a single access point.

Mills: “So it’s about traffic.”

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Mills asked staff if there’s a limit to how many trailers could be on the property, which is currently zoned R-10 mobile home park.

Micuda said there could be 140 mobile homes based on the acreage, under city code.

Essex said she was also concerned about pets since a lot of rentals don’t allow pets.

“So we should deny based on pets now? I don’t think that’s relevant,” Mills said.

Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said, “I’m appalled by the discussion today.”

He said it’s a zoning and subdivision action that’s not based on design.

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Doney said that “if it’s going to be a popularity contest, it’s going to put a tremendous damper,” on future development.

He said that the housing study GFDA commissioned last year showed “a tremendous need” for more housing at all price points.

“We haven’t come near to scratching the surface of the amount of housing” that study says is needed, Doney said.

He said that the city faces strain on services, particularly fire and police, as the city expands, so they’ve been asking developers to look at redevelopment and use underutilized or underdeveloped properties to lessen the need for additional fire stations and other services.

“I’m flabbergasted,” at this discussion, Doney said. “I can’t tell you how many projects this action will have an impact on. It’s very significant.”

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Shannon Wilson said that she had concerns over traffic and that the traffic projections were optimistic.

She said the city needed another campground and to cut one isn’t probusiness.

The Dick’s property was sold to new owners who have proposed the apartment complex.

Donna Williams said she had concerns on the lack of connectivity in the area for pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Joe McMillan is developing other multifamily projects and the project isn’t necessarily in his best interest, but after hearing the board discussion, said he was compelled to make a comment.

He said he hears people talk about how expensive housing is in Great Falls and building more would help stabilize rents.

Spencer Woith, of Woith Engineering and the development team for the project, said that there are criteria and requirements to submit projects that the city reviews before brining it to planning boards and the commission.

He said the third party consultant was hired by the city for the traffic study and found that intersections would function.

“You just chose to ignore that…is very frustrating on our end,” Woith said.

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He said there are metrics all projects are measured by, building and development codes.

He said it’s difficult to bring projects, “when we don’t know what we’re intending to meet.”

Woith said projects are coming from “sophisticated and intelligent developers” and “they’re not all spending $110 million just hoping for the best…they’ve done they’re analysis.”

He said the development includes dog amenities in the club house and that if there’s enough demand for trailers or RVs, someone will build another park to meet the demand.

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It’s expensive to build housing, Woith said, and the more units are built, lowers supply costs and forces the market to tighten.

He said as newer housing comes on the market, owners of older housing stock who are probably overcharging are forced to reduce rents or make improvements that probably should have been made years ago.

Under the code, Woith said they could built 1,200 units on the property, “but that doesn’t make sense” since they wanted to provide open space.

The buildings are taller, at about 60 feet, since they include first level parking for residents.

“To hear I just don’t like it….this is tough to swallow,” Woith said.

Michelle Dick, family of the previous property owners, said that the roads in the area are already congested.

Raymond, city planning director, the board needed to develop concise findings that are supportable by the city’s land use criteria.

“You have to account for what you’re saying,” Raymond said.

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Mills asked if denying the project for the reasons discussed opened the city to a lawsuit.

Raymond said at that point it’s merely a recommendation to the commission, but “this is one of the messier meetings I’ve ever experienced. We don’t control opinions or outcomes…but we have to make I’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.”

Raymond said they’re finding that the industry is changing dramatically and rapidly.

“If this community is going to grow, if that’s what we want, some people don’t, some people do as long as it’s not in their backyard, there’s definitely going to be a couple of things we’re going to have to come to grips with and tolerate. For the community to grow, we don’t always get to pick the ideal scenario.”

Traffic will change. Raymond said that he’s sensitive to traffic and it’s a reason he left Seattle for Montana, but “we have to get used to the idea that traffic is going to change and it’s going to increase.”

In this case, it will be a dramatic change for people on the neighboring streets since the apartment complex is unlike anything that exists in that area.

Density will also change as construction costs continue to rise.

He said staff is aware of these issues as well as legislation being considered this session that would force the city to accept any multifamily project in any residential zoning district with no exceptions.

“That’s a real scenario right now before the legislature,” he said.

Bertelsen, board chair, said that after listening to public comment, “the city probably needs this development.

Gray said her concern was the single access point in case of emergency.

Raymond said that’s why the code requires the secondary emergency access that is planned for the project.

Gray said, “oh, well that’s a little different,” and withdrew her motion to deny the project.

Samantha Kaupish moved to recommend approval of the zone change.

The board voted 4-1 to recommend approval of the zone change and the minor subdivision.

The project next goes to City Commission for final consideration.