By Amanda Eggert EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – A local developer is on track to break ground in May on a workforce housing unit called Big Sky Lofts, east of the new Ace Hardware building.

Scott Altman, also a realtor with Montana Living – Big Sky Real Estate, said there aren’t many pieces of property in Big Sky that have the right zoning as well as water and sewer access to support such projects.

“With this one, we’re lucky to have all three. This one we can make work,” said Altman, who has been working on the project for two years.

The development, if approved by Gallatin County Commissioners, will be located on a 16-acre plot of land presently called the Sweetgrass Hills Subdivision. Ace Hardware and Big Sky Vacation Rentals are currently located on part of the plot.

To ensure Big Sky’s workforce reaps benefit from the project, occupants would be required to show proof of employment with a Big Sky business, Altman said, adding that local employers have already inquired about approximately half of the project’s units.

“I think the whole goal in employee housing is to make people more invested in the area,” Altman said. “Our goal is to have them in close. We’d like them to be involved in Big Sky, spend their money in Big Sky and support businesses in Big Sky.”

The number of units is yet to be determined, but Altman said they’re aiming for 40 to 46 lofts split between two buildings. He’s hoping to complete at least one building by next winter.

The ground floor of each building would contain a 1,500-square-foot commercial property, which would help the project meet county zoning restrictions for the area. The area’s zoning is designated as “community-commercial,” and Altman said a number of businesses have expressed interest in the commercial spaces.

Centre Sky Architecture is designing the development plans, which have yet to be finalized. Under the current plans, each 1,500-square-foot unit will have four bedrooms with individual bathrooms, a shared kitchen and great room. The buildings would be two or three stories, Altman said.

Target rental costs have not yet been set. “We’re trying to [offer them] under market rate by a good little bit if we can. It all just depends on what our build costs come in at,” Altman said.

Build costs are often 25 percent higher in Big Sky than Bozeman, but Altman said the high volume of construction going on in Bozeman has led to an increase in build costs since Bozeman builders favor work closer to home. “Build costs are our biggest hurdle,” he said.

Although Altman said the project has been green lighted by the Big Sky Water and Sewer District, some county approvals are still needed: a certificate of subdivision approval (COSA) from the Gallatin City-County Health Department, and ultimate approval from the Gallatin County Commissioners.

Denise Moldroski, an environmental health specialist with the Gallatin City-County Health Department, said the COSA looks at drinking water, wastewater treatment, solid waste disposal and storm water drainage. She said as of March 2, a COSA for the Big Sky Lofts had not been filed.

Altman said he intends to subdivide the property into two lots to keep the commercial area surrounding Ace separate from the Big Sky Lofts, which will cover approximately two-thirds of the plot’s 16 acres.

On Feb. 22, Altman submitted a preliminary plat application to the Gallatin County Planning Department. Sean O’Callaghan, a planning director with the Gallatin County Department of Planning and Community Development, said the application is intended to give the developer feedback before he goes through the final design process.

O’Callaghan said that two months to make it through the preliminary plat review process is a reasonable timeline, but added that the status of other approvals would play a role as well.

“We’re working full bore to make this happen,” Altman said. He’s hoping Big Sky Lofts will help generate momentum for future projects in the area.

“There hasn’t been even a ray of anything coming for quite a while, so [the] response so far has been super, super encouraging,” he said. “Everyone’s been offering to do what they can to make it work.”

Affordable housing has been a prominent issue in the community the past several years, spurring a 2014 housing study that found 83 percent of Big Sky’s workforce commutes from elsewhere in Gallatin County.

A 2015 preliminary architectural report funded in part by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce identified eight potential sites for affordable housing. The high cost of land has been a significant hurdle to potential developments like those outlined in the report.