Navigating PNCs 

Development and its discontents

Last Monday night, Missoula City Council approved a Planned Neighborhood Cluster (PNC) along Briggs St. near 23rd St. While commenting on the proposed PNC, several neighbors shared less than flattering interpretations of the bureaucratic acronym’s true meaning. PNC complaints have been mounting since 1999, when the city implemented tools—including PNCs—to help manage growth. Developers would be granted flexibility in certain design standards—like setbacks and lot sizes—in exchange for including other components, like open space or low-income housing. Ideally, the result would be smart growth—infill where city services already existed, instead of sprawl along the perimeter.

Here’s where one breakdown occurs: The PNCs require a dialogue between the developer and neighbors, but the developers’ obligation to neighbors begins and ends with this conversation. The rules do not provide for neighbor appeal—a fact of which dissatisfied Briggs St. neighbors are all too aware.

Predictably, Briggs’ neighbors feel sidelined, silenced and bullied.

And what of the developer? Ken Ault, who hopes to make a profit from slicing up the land and building houses on it, finally has a green light to proceed with his Briggs Court PNC. Shouldn’t he be dancing in the streets? Instead, Ault, 33, says he’s frustrated. He jokes that his next step is to go into hiding.

Six years ago, Ault, whose father was in the business as well, built out his first plot of land—the Scattered Pines development near Lolo.

“Since then, I’ve just been trying to find pieces of property to build on,” says the Missoula native. “In the city, where there are services, it’s almost impossible to find property.”

Ault brokered a deal to purchase five acres along Briggs Court last year. He calculated that without having to go through Council approval for a subdivision, he could build 27 rental units or condos on the property. Building rentals, though, wasn’t what Ault had in mind.

“We wanted to have owner-occupied lots,” he says. “It’s in a neighborhood that currently has that [owner-occupied lots].”

So he embarked on the process of gaining approval for a Planned Neighborhood Cluster. Though Ault maintains that PNCs are better for all parties, he says that the Briggs Court was one of the most frustrating.

First of all, although Ault hired WGM Group to design the homes, he had unsolicited design help along the way.

“Two Council members put together a plan, which I think is absolutely ridiculous,” he says. “They scratch it out in 10 minutes and we spend a year and a half on a plan.”

One of those Council members, Jerry Ballas, is an architect, but nevertheless, it was disconcerting that the Council members “never sat down with me and asked me what I wanted to do.”

Secondly, it’s time-consuming. Had he chosen to toss up condos, Ault could have broken ground last March. He would not have had to engage in neighborhood and Council meetings—where oftentimes discussions, says Ault, had nothing to do with design at all, but with unrelated problems in the neighborhood.

The process is also costly—much more so than building the condos would have been, says Ault. The current value of lots in the area is at least $65,000, he says. Losing six lots—going from 27 lots to 21, as Council requested—means losing a hefty chunk of change. Ault is also the builder; he loses money, he says, by building fewer houses, too.

“You can’t give much more than that and come out [ahead],” he says. “That’s a lot of extra money.”

Ault’s original strategy for keeping the number of lots closer to 27 was stymied by his designer’s advice. Ault wanted to present the city with a plan that included more lots than he actually wanted, knowing that a few would be lost in negotiations. A highball offer. His designer, Nick Kauffman of WGM Group, steered him in another direction. “As a professional, you design the best project for the site,” says Kauffman. “You look at the physical characteristics of the site and you look at the cultural influences of the site and you do your best design. And that’s the design you take forward.”

Kauffman’s ideal design included 24 lots; the neighbors were asking for 19.

Joe Gorsh, whose house overlooks Briggs Court, speaks for the neighbors. Their reaction wasn’t, he wants to be clear, a NIMBY response. Development, in fact, is the best use for the land, he says. But the neighbors’ viewpoints were disregarded. Though the PNC allows for flexibility, he says the project requires too many exceptions to the rules. When he counts the total variances granted on the most recent 21-lot plan, he finds 80. He thinks that’s excessive. Naturally, he would have liked to see lots and homes mirroring the ones already in the neighborhood.

Gorsh has another concern. He is afraid that Ault will not honor the Council vote, which approved a 21-lot plan. Ault himself knows—and points out—that he is still not obligated to build the Council-approved plan. He could build the condos instead.

If it would be so much easier, and so much less expensive, why, then, doesn’t he?

Because he has another 25 years of living and working in Missoula, he says.

“We’re definitely doing it to make a profit,” explains Ault. “The developer always gets a bad name for cutting pieces of property up. But Missoula is growing. And land is valuable,” he says. “People are asking for houses. When there’s nothing there, the prices are going up.”
Contact the reporter: kszpaller@

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