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Commissioners deny preliminary plat for 39-unit affordable housing project

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By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor

BOZEMAN – Gallatin County commissioners unanimously denied preliminary plat approval for a workforce housing subdivision spearheaded by Big Sky developer and realtor Scott Altman at a Nov. 14 meeting held at the Gallatin County Courthouse.

Altman and the commissioners couldn’t agree upon improvements to the site access—namely the installation of right- and left-hand turn lanes leading into the subdivision for both eastbound and westbound traffic on Highway 64, also known as Lone Mountain Trail.

Although conflicting numbers were presented, the Powder Light subdivision near Ace Hardware was expected to generate between 2,300 and 2,500 trips per day—a measurement of the amount of people turning into or out of the access road. The subdivision was designed to include 39 units with four bedrooms each, split between three buildings. The lower level of each building would have been designated for commercial space, per its community commercial zoning.

Commissioners Don Seifert, Steve White and Joe Skinner voted down the subdivision based upon the recommendation of Gallatin County planners and traffic engineers who felt it would be unsafe without the turn lanes.

Altman and his advisors argued that a recent traffic study found that turn lanes are warranted at eight points along Highway 64, and it would be unfair to require one developer to make roadway improvements given that other recent developments like Big Sky Medical Center and Roxy’s Market were approved without them.

Speaking to that concern, Gallatin County Planner Tim Skop said the Town Center development was approved in 2000 and the county can’t ask for additional improvements beyond what was agreed to in their 2000 application.

“The way things have been done in the past—I don’t think that’s a good justification for continuing to do that,” said traffic engineer Levi Ewan, reiterating that he believes there would be a safety hazard created by building the subdivision without the turn lanes.

Nearly everyone could agree that Montana Department of Transportation’s role in the process was a source of confusion and at times frustration. MDT gave Altman’s team and the county planning and zoning department conflicting messages about whether or not turn lanes were required.

County officials took issue with the fact that Altman started building an approach road—which was signed off on by MDT—prior to receiving preliminary plat approval. Skop said the road installation is a form of construction that should have been undertaken only after preliminary plat approval.

Altman replied that it took 11 months just to get the approval from MDT and he jumped the gun because construction season in Big Sky is short and he was eager to get started. “We honestly thought this [approval] was going to happen more [quickly].”

In a Nov. 15 interview, Jeff Ebert, MDT’s southwest region administrator, said MDT supports putting in turn lanes but can’t require it. “We don’t have any police powers,” he said.

“We issued the approach permits two years ago when it was just a small development. Now they’re doing a larger development, yet they’re using the same access,” Ebert said. “In order for them to address the traffic caused by the development, they need to put the turn lanes in.”

Highway 64 is a state highway without the same access to funding that other state highways have, Ebert added.

Most everyone present at the hearing seemed resigned to the fact that getting the state to make safety improvements to the highway would take a decade or longer, if it happens at all.

There is the possibility of the improvements being made via other avenues, though. The Big Sky Chamber and Big Sky Community Organization applied for a competitive federal grant in the amount of $10.3 million that, if approved, would fund improvements to Highway 64 from its intersection with Highway 191 up to Big Sky Resort. They expect to know if they will receive the grant this spring.

As an alternative to fully funding the turn lanes himself, which is expected to cost $1 million, Altman offered $25,000 toward a future solution that could include a rural improvement district along the full corridor. Commissioners did not find that alternative sufficient, citing concerns that some serious accidents could occur between the subdivision completion and the installation of turn lanes.

A variety of Big Sky community members—residents, developers and business owners—submitted approximately 30 letters in favor of the subdivision, and the need for affordable workforce housing pervaded in those letters.

Commissioners agree that workforce housing is needed in Big Sky, but don’t feel that it trumps the safety concern. “I think the affordable housing aspect of this is very commendable, and I want to vote for this … but I’m not convinced that if we approve this we would be mitigating public health and safety adequately,” said commissioner Skinner.

Big Sky Chamber of Commerce CEO Candace Carr Strauss, one of about a dozen Big Sky community members who attended the hearing, argued against separating transportation concerns from affordable housing and voiced her support for the development. “Please don’t disconnect those two thoughts because they are critical and they are integrated,” she said.

Others said that providing local workers a place to live in Big Sky would remove the traffic pressure on Highway 191 in the canyon between Four Corners and Big Sky.

At a Nov. 13 informational community meeting at Compass Café, Altman characterized his subdivision as high-density housing intended for the workers who are new to the area and have a job but leave because they can’t find accommodations. He envisioned renting units to businesses for their employees, and emphasized that the units would be offered below market rate, per its zoning.

On Nov. 15, Altman said funding the turn lanes himself is unlikely. “A million dollar turn lane is not going to happen—there’s no way.” Altman added that he’s probably dedicated 1,000 hours to the project in the four years he’s been working on it. “What a disappointment … It feels like none of [the commissioners] represent Big Sky.”

Altman said he was going to meet with his team and discuss options. “I’m not really a litigator,” he said. “But we might litigate on this.”

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