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Affordable housing project stumbles at county commission meeting

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By Tyler Allen EBS Managing Editor

BOZEMAN – A marathon, six-hour Gallatin County Commission meeting Feb. 28 ended with a blow to affordable housing in Big Sky.

Commissioner Joe Skinner and chairman Don Seifert heard from more than 20 members of the public—mostly Big Sky community members in support of the project—before denying the Bough Big Sky Community Subdivision’s preliminary plat approval.

The decision was more of a referendum on the design of the development than affordable housing in Big Sky, as the commissioners denied two of three variances from county subdivision standards requested in the application.

The Big Sky Community Housing Trust is leading the effort on the planned 32-unit project on a 10-acre property donated by Loren Bough to be developed by Lone Mountain Land Company. They asked for variances in the requirements for sidewalks on both sides of the streets, a 60-foot right of way for roads and a secondary vehicle access for the neighborhood.

The commissioners approved the first variance, agreeing that planned trails and parkland on the property could replace sidewalks that wouldn’t be ideal given Big Sky’s heavy snowfall and the lack of connecting sidewalks on adjacent properties.

However, the proposed single entrance road and 40-foot right of way for streets in the development was a non-starter for the commissioners, who cited emergency vehicle access among other safety concerns.

The applicants said engineering a second road access would be cost prohibitive and the reduced right of way width was necessary based on density and topographic constraints. But the issue of who would be tasked with ticketing and towing cars from the narrower roads—the homeowners association or sheriff’s department—in order to accommodate fire and other emergency vehicles, was especially concerning to the commissioners.

“When you put all those variances together—no sidewalks, the 40-foot right of way and no secondary access—it just compounds the safety issues,” Skinner said.

“Subdivision regulations are minimum standards … those standards include health, safety and general welfare of the public,” Seifert said. “The burden of proof falls upon the developer to show us why those variances are necessary, and if we’re not convinced that a variance is necessary then we can’t grant it.”

“I think it’s a good project, I want to support it,” said Skinner, adding that if it weren’t for the variances he didn’t think there would be anyone in the room opposing the application. “I don’t see how we can support it just because it’s an affordable housing project.”

Steve White, the third member of the commission, left the meeting prior the hearing. In August, White said he would recuse himself from any decisions on the property after an ethics investigation was opened by the Montana Attorney General’s Office due to an alleged cozy relationship with Bough.

Big Sky School District Superintendent Dustin Shipman began the public comment period describing his troubles recruiting and retaining teachers because of housing costs. Former school district superintendent Anne Marie Mistretta echoed his concerns, saying 75 percent of the teachers have left the district since she retired six years ago.

Three of the Big Sky Resort Area District tax board members—Mike Scholz, Ginna Hermann and Kevin Germain—also spoke in favor of the project. The BSRAD board appropriated $1.05 million to the Big Sky Community Housing Trust last June to help this project get off the ground.

“You can see the tremendous support we’ve got from friends and neighbors here,” said Loren Bough, who donated the land and is also chair of the school board. “I’m proud my family’s name is attached to this project. I’m also proud to be part of the solution of making home ownership affordable for the individuals and families who work in Big Sky.”

Adjacent landowners, including representatives of the Paul Cronin Family Limited Partnership, spoke out against the application.

“Everybody’s in favor of affordable housing, but you have to do it safely and within the regulations,” said attorney Susan Swimley, representing the Cronins’ company.

“Your job is to look at the variance and balance that against public safety,” she told the commissioners.

Brian Guyer, HRDC community development manager and acting director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, struck a confident tone after the hearing. He said they’d be able to come back to the commission with a revised application and move the project forward.

“Affordable housing is not an easy game,” Guyer said. “I’ve never had a project that hasn’t been opposed in some form or fashion … we know what the county wants to see and I don’t think by any means this project is done.

“I think the important thing for the community of Big Sky to know is that this is not the end of it,” he added. “We’re going to continue to work on affordable housing—not just on this site—but we’re going to continue to pursue other opportunities to address the housing need across the spectrum from seasonal, to rentals to ownership.”

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