A proposed subdivision would overlook this farmhouse at the Flynn Ranch historic site, a relic of Missoula’s frontier days. Originally, city agencies demanded a 100-foot buffer between the new development and the historic property, but after a month of negotiations that space has dwindled to as little as 40 feet.
Whenever a new subdivision proposal comes before the Missoula City Council some level of controversy seems to ensue, whether Council itself, various city agencies, neighbors, or the developer stirs it. Growth takes time and compromise.
The latest headache is the Flynn Ranch Subdivision near the northwest corner of town, a 52-lot spread with 51 single-unit dwellings and 80 condos. All of this new development would butt up against the 125-year-old Flynn farmhouse, deemed a Historic Landmark since 1983, and preserved under a conservation easement by the Missoula County Wye-Mullan West Comprehensive Plan.
The proximity of the historic property to the new construction raises tricky questions about a developer’s obligation when a project runs up against what is essentially government-protected open space. Under the city’s current subdivision regulations, a new development must preserve the character of a neighborhood, and not encroach upon it.
The Flynn farmhouse preserves a living record of Missoula’s history, argues one of the historic property’s owners, Laurie McKinnon Rollin. “It was built a year after Montana became a territory of the United States and right about the time that [infamous Montana Vigilante] Henry Plummer’s gang of road agents were hanged,” she told the City Council at its Jan. 14 meeting.
At the subdivision’s initial public hearing, the city Parks Department requested that owner and developer David Manookian, president of Stockyard Road Investments, provide a 100-foot buffer between the historic frontage and his new development to keep the development from encroaching on the protected ground, creating a boundary between the past and present.
But as the subdivision review process progressed through meetings of the city’s Planning Board; the Plat, Annexation, and Zoning Committee (PAZ); and the full City Council, the suggested buffer shrunk to a much narrower strip, varying from 40 to 80 feet.
Even Manookian’s attorney, Alan McCormick, says the new situation tilts in favor of his client’s wallet. “I’m a layman when it comes to real estate, but yes, property near open space and conservation easements holds an increased value,” he says.
McCormick says the idea to reduce the buffer came from negotiations with the owners of the Flynn Ranch and calls it a fair compromise.
“The neighbors requested the 100-foot buffer to preserve the area, and we didn’t want it, and after looking at that Council essentially put the decision to we the people,” McCormick says. “[Councilman] Jon Wilkins specifically said, ‘You guys go solve this and take it out of our hands.’ Several others agreed with him as well.”
But not everyone likes the results. Janet Sproull of the Missoula Save Open Space committee says the reduction saddened her, but it didn’t shock her. “Every time this comes back it seems worse for the conservation easement,” she says. “We’re losing valuable open space for this.”
During a special Jan. 18 meeting of the PAZ Committee meeting Council members discussed issues with the subdivision, covering everything from sewers to cul-de-sacs with an eye toward whether the city should annex the new subdivision at all. The sharp reduction in buffer space also caught the attention of Ward 1 Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who told McCormick that the 100-foot buffer seemed barely sufficient for the area and takes away from the historical nature of the area.
“It fits the law, but I don’t feel it’s adequate,” he said.
At that same meeting Ward 6 Councilman Ed Childers pointed out that Manookian had supported the buffer until recently, but “has now negotiated it down to nearly nothing.”
The Council’s criticism frustrates McCormick. “They wanted us to compromise, and after years of talking and meetings and more meetings, we did it. We compromised and now the City Council won’t honor it at all,” he says.
By refusing to annex the Flynn Ranch subdivision into the city, Council members who don’t like the reduced buffer—or hate the idea of the subdivision altogether—can leave the thorny subdivision review in the hands of the County government.
Maureen Edwards, one of the Flynn Ranch owners currently living at the property, urged the PAZ Committee at its Jan. 18 meeting to annex the subdivision, buffer and all, into the city.
“We [Manookian and the Flynn Ranch owners] did come to an agreement with the 80 and 40 foot buffers because we wanted to at least have something,” she said. “We’re not happy with this, but it is something.”
The Council’s final decision remains weeks away, as the PAZ Committee continues its deliberations. But the developer wants action soon.
“Manookian is not trying to skirt any rules,” McCormick says. “It’s just that the compromise was made. We need a decision now.”
As of press time, the PAZ Committee hadn’t scheduled its follow-up discussion of the subdivision.