The flat patch of land on Catlin Street behind the Good Food Store doesn't look like much. A rusty fence defines the corner of the two-plus-acre parcel that's dotted with tires, ailing trees and slash piles.
Investor Steven Sann hopes to build 71 one- and two-bedroom apartments on the property. But the current zoning of 16 units per acre allows a project only half that size. To move forward with the development, known as Catlin Trail, Sann needs the Missoula City Council to approve his request to rezone the land, reigniting the debate about how—and where—Missoula should grow heading into the 21st century.
The prospect of doubling density doesn't sit well with a number of surrounding property owners including Jeremy Watterson, who, since 2006, has lived with his wife and three children about 250 feet—a long stone's throw, as he calls it—from the parcel.
"It affects me," Watterson says. "It affects the way of life that we've tried so hard to nurture back here."
Neighborhood residents worry the development would significantly increase vehicle and foot traffic, make parking difficult, decrease home values and generally diminish the overall quality of life. In fact, dozens of neighbors from the surrounding area have written letters stating their opposition, and property owners representing nine parcels immediately adjacent to the proposed development have filed legal protests with the city.
Area residents feel bombarded by new and pending developments. Last year the Missoula Housing Authority (MHA) unveiled its 37-unit Garden District Homes just across the street from the Catlin Trail property on the former Intermountain Lumber site. Meanwhile, a local real estate investment and development company, the Farran Group, is eyeing the abandoned lumberyard to build an additional 196 apartments.
When Watterson learned in December about Sann's Catlin Trail proposal, the 32-year-old pawnbroker vowed to try and stop it. He says he began reading Missoula growth plans, becoming fluent in the language of development. He knocked on doors to better ensure other locals understood the potential impacts of increasing density at Catlin Trail. It's simply not fair, he says, for one neighborhood—his neighborhood—to bear the weight of Missoula's growth.
"I began to realize as I talked, visited with my neighbors about this and went door to door looking for signatures and getting people to come to city council meetings that this is more important than me," Watterson says. "And this is more important than this one development."
Catlin Trail architect James Hoffmann, who represents Sann, says the council's decision on the rezoning request will have a far-reaching impact on Missoula's continued growth.
"Everybody is looking at this," Hoffmann says. "When I say everybody, I'm talking about folks in the development community, property owners and contractors and developers."
Hoffmann, who also serves as board chairman of the Missoula Housing Authority, says more projects like Catlin Trail are necessary to ease difficulties renters face finding affordable and market rate housing in town.
"We haven't been building rentals lately," Hoffman says, explaining that there simply aren't enough available properties in Missoula's residential neighborhoods zoned for high-density development. Hoffman says his client doesn't see a sufficient financial incentive to build under the 16-unit-per-acre specifications mandated for the Catlin Trail property.
"It doesn't work. It doesn't pencil," Hoffman says.
The council's willingness to allow increased density at Catlin Trail will either spook or inspire potential investors, Hoffmann says. "If they see this isn't going to get approved, it will be difficult for them to presume to invest at risk money to try to upzone a property anytime soon."
And if investors bolt, fewer apartments will be built, the veteran architect says, and renters will lose.
Like Hoffman and Watterson, Missoula Office of Planning and Grants Director Mike Barton sees the Catlin Trail debate as part of a much broader discussion. For Barton, the issue boils down to the benefits of infill versus the hazards of sprawl. Density promotes efficient public services. It also helps preserve agricultural land and open space, the amenities that draw so many people into the state from urban places.
"I'm not saying that a neighborhood should bear this unfairly," Barton says. "But the idea is to concentrate development and allow us, all of us, to have more usable open space."
That said, Barton acknowledges increasing density will force the entire Missoula community to adapt to the idea of living closer together. That can be a hard sell for neighborhoods on the receiving end.
"It's about everybody's perception of what a good community and a good quality of life is. And so what has to happen here is everybody has got to bring their individual viewpoints to the table... It's got to be sorted out. It's like, okay, here's where the nut cutting gets done."
Council will hold a public hearing on the zoning request in the coming weeks. Because of the legal protest, three quarters of council members present must vote in favor of the proposal for it to pass.
In the meantime, Watterson says he will continue knocking on doors and lobbying council.
"What we have back here is worth fighting for," he says.