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Bad roads jar Hillside Estates approval

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | May 23, 2024 12:00 AM

Should a developer be asked to improve substandard city streets leading to a new subdivision?

That’s the question the Polson City Commission wrestled with at Monday’s public hearing and meeting regarding approval of the preliminary plat for a proposed new subdivision, Hillside Estates. The 15.33-acre subdivision would include 16 residential lots and is located south of Hillside Court and north of Claffey Drive.

The subdivision proposal had been unanimously approved May 14 by the City-County Planning Board.

About a dozen area residents showed up for Monday’s the public hearing, and most stayed for the subsequent commission meeting.

“It's been looked at pretty darn hard and that's good because it's a challenging site given the slopes, given the conditions,” said Marc Carstens, who represents developer Alex Olson of Bigfork Viking Storage. “But we feel we've been able to meet every condition.”

Ultimately, the commission disagreed, voted 4-2 to deny the proposal at the end of a long and somewhat contentious meeting.

“Bone-jarring obstacle course”

Rick Johnson, who lives on Hillside Court, a street adjacent to the proposed subdivision, gave a brief history of the area during the public hearing. He said their access road was supposed to have been paved by the developer, but wasn’t, and “in the end the property owners decided the only way to get Hillside paved was to suck it up, work with the county and the city to get it done and we did.”

However, he said that the street was completed quickly and cheaply, “and to my knowledge the road was not engineered to accepted standards.”

“My concern is that the heavy traffic load from cement trucks, dump trucks and other heavy equipment movement” required to build homes and infrastructure for the new development “will destroy Hillside Court since it was not designed for this level of use.”

He also noted that 15th Avenue E., which swings uphill with a blind corner at the top where it connects to Hillside, “is already in horrendous condition and will only get worse with the projected traffic. I drive this street daily and it's a bone-jarring, pothole-infested obstacle course.”

He suggested that funding for improvements to streets leading into and out of the subdivision should be the responsibility of the developer and the city, since both will receive revenue from the project. “The current residents of Hillside Court should not lose an asset they paid for and worked hard to acquire just to facilitate construction of this subdivision.”

Wilma Mixon Hall, a real-estate agent who lives on Claffey Dr., located above the proposed subdivision, also expressed concerns about the impact of construction traffic on her neighborhood, and the safety of channeling more traffic on a road that takes a sharp turn off Skyline Drive, in the middle of a blind curve, followed by “an actual hairpin turn to come down to Claffey Drive.”

“I don't see where increased traffic coming on and off Skyline would be at all safe,” she said.

David King, who owns the last house on Hillcrest Court, questioned whether Polson Mayor Eric Huffine should recuse himself from voting on the proposal. He suggested that as owner of the concrete business Wall and Slab, Huffine could conceivably benefit from the project.

“It could be a huge boon for your company to do these driveways and these gutters and all these concrete things,” King said.

“We have more work than we can handle now,” Huffine replied. “I didn't take this job so that I had an opportunity to have financial gain. I did it because I love my community.”

King also expressed his concern that the access road to the subdivision “could become a through street for people taking shortcuts” – an issue he said a gated private road might help address.

Commission denies preliminary plat

At the onset of the commission meeting, Community Development Director Rob Edington said his staff supported approval of the preliminary plat and pointed out that his department had issued 23 conditions regarding the project, which would need to be addressed prior to final approval.

He added that if the commission chose to deny the proposal, “they would require findings of fact in support of their decision.”

He also pointed out that prior to final plat, the applicant would have to submit a traffic impact analysis “or demonstrate the subdivision is in compliance with the city of Polson's standards for design and construction, which currently requires traffic analysis of developments contributing 300 or more vehicle trips per day.”

In his presentation to the commission, Carstens addressed the concern about substandard roads. He said that subdivision laws in Montana mandate that developers “have to account for impacts of off-site public facility improvements, and roads is one of them – roads outside of this subdivision that will serve this subdivision.”

Commissioner Carolyn Pardini proposed a resolution to deny the preliminary plat, due to concerns about traffic volume and its impact on roads leading into the area. Her motion was seconded by Commissioner Lisa Rehard, and a debate ensued between the two commissioners, the developers and Polson City Manager Ed Meece.

Pardini said a constituent of hers contends that the city had spent more than $13,000 for a traffic study conducted several years ago when the developer of Cougar Ridge had proposed building an access road using 15th Ave.

“This study determined that 15th Avenue in that dog leg could not handle additional traffic,” Pardini said. She offered to help city staff track down the study.

Carstens and his client then offered to pay for an independent traffic analysis of the impact of the 16 lots on 15th Ave. and Claffey, and abide by its conclusions as part of preliminary plat approval. That’s despite the fact that the subdivision is estimated to generate 160 trips a day (an estimated 10 trips per lot), about half the volume of trips which would typically trigger a study.

“Everybody has put in work and good faith on this project. And if you want to deny it, deny it. That's your prerogative,” Carstens said. “But it's also your prerogative to help us come to a solution and the solution I would propose is an additional component to the approval that says we're going to move forward with a discussion of what these 16 lots are going to do to these two streets and live with it.”

“We've already done a study … that says 15th is inadequate,” Pardini said.

“The previous traffic study you're referring to does not analyze this development,” objected developer Alex Olson. “It has nothing to do with this development.”

Commissioner Rehard, a retired attorney, expressed two major concerns with the project. First, she doesn’t believe the Polson code allows for the developer to build a private street. She also took issue with access to the subdivision.

“I think that the access on either side, either from the top side or the bottom side, is awful,” she said, adding that she would want to see an engineer’s report. “Even though they're dedicated public streets, I'm not convinced that either of them complies with the City of Polson’s standards for design.”

She also said once the preliminary plat is approved, the commission can’t add conditions. “So whether the streets are adequate to get us into that property is something that we can't change after this point.”

Meece, while acknowledging commission concerns, noted that “the purpose of a preliminary plat approval is to approve the division of property and the large layout of how that will be accomplished.”

He said that traffic analysis would typically follow as part of a more in-depth process. “And if those traffic analysis say that certain other types of street mitigation in or outside the project are required, then the developer has to undertake those improvements because you have a condition in the preliminary plan approval that says exactly that.”

Meece also expressed concerns that the commission was trying to address issues that aren’t part of the city’s preliminary planning process.

“My point is that the system that we have lays out a preliminary process, a study and engineering process, and a final approval process,” he said. “If we want to do something else, we certainly can, but we have to change the code up front and make that clear to the development community, not do this on a piecemeal basis that one time we're going to do it one way and another time we're going to do it a different way.”

Pardini, Rehard, and commissioners Brodie Moll and Laura Dever voted to deny the preliminary plat, while Mayor Huffine and commissioner Jen Ruggless voted against denial.

 “I don't want to get into a confrontation and a battle with you over this. But if you deny me tonight, I'm going to ask for a legal statement about what we did not comply with,” Olson said after the vote. “I am willing to provide the traffic study. So, tell me how we're not complying legally.”