noun  co·nun·drum

Our City Commission seems to be faced with a difficult decision, or as Commissioner Bill Bronson says, “it’s a conundrum.”

Here’s the issue; to vote for a zone change which would allow a four story motel, approximately 50 feet high, close to the 10th Ave S/Fox Farm intersection, or to vote against it in order to stem the proliferation of casinos — although none are immediately proposed — in the same area. The proposed change from a C-1 zone to C-2 zone would only be necessary to increase the allowable height restriction from 35 feet to 65 feet.

Re: Great Falls, Montana Code, Land Development Chapter 20,, Exhibit 20-4.

Some say that we don’t need anymore motels and those new jobs aren’t really economic development, or that the potential property tax generated by the project would not decrease our existing residential property taxes. Both of these arguments are false and here’s why. Any project built in Great Falls that provides jobs, both construction jobs and permanent jobs, is economic development, something we sorely need, even if at the very least it replaces jobs we have lost for the past several years. Simple enough to understand.

Also, any project that grows the City tax base lessens the burden on residential tax payers because the cost of government, if it remains somewhat constant, requires smaller contributions from each taxpayer.

Bronson’s “conundrum” that is keeping him awake at night is not a musical instrument, but it can be beaten. If the City Commission is too afraid of casinos, the solution that everyone can live with is a no-brainer and it does not require a zone change, only a project specific height variance for the potential four story motel property. The variance allowed under Chapter 20, would not adversely affect the area since the motel site is a stone’s throw from the tallest building in Great Falls, the Country Club Tower, which itself is eleven stories high.

The existing C-1 zoning would remain intact, require substantially more landscaping and setbacks than a C-2 zone, and not allow additional casino development in the area.

So what’s actually going to happen? According to the Great Falls Tribune, it’s likely Commissioner Bronson will personally intervene to complicate what should otherwise be a simple process:

Bronson recommended that time be used by city planners to develop an alternate “Planned Unit Development” proposal that would give the City of Great Falls greater control over the scope and nature of development in the area.

The problem with this misguided approach lies within the City’s Municipal Code, which states:

“ – Generally.

A Planned Unit Development may be proposed as a subdivision or as a single development project with multiple buildings involving a homeowners or property owners association.”

The creation of a PUD for a single building with a single owner does not satisfy the intent of the code. In this case, you would have a property owners association for governance of the PUD with one member. If you included all the properties in the existing C-1 zone, it could not be defined as a single development since those properties have already been developed.

By not finding a solution that makes sense and adheres to governing codes, the attitude of the City Commission, particularly Bronson, appears short-sighted and antithetical to City’s adopted 2013 Growth Policy;

Eco3.4.2 Promote a “business friendly” attitude and support the use of an ombudsman role in all facets of business development.

Sure, a PUD district will allow Bronson to position himself as a “compromiser” on a thorny issue, but if government refuses to get out of the way, as Gregg Smith calls for, the obvious compromise here is much simpler: it’s to grant a height variance, not create a single-property PUD.

Posted by Philip M. Faccenda

Philip M. Faccenda is an AIA award-winning architect and planner. He is the Editor-in-Chief of E-City Beat.

Reader interactions

6 Replies to “Conundrum”

  1. From Great Falls Land development code: A 8.
    C-1 Neighborhood commercial. This district is found near established and developing residential areas and is intended to accommodate LOW INTENSITY COMMERCIAL ACTIVITIES THAT SERVE THE NEARBY RESIDENTIAL AREA. Development standards ensure the compatibility of this district to those residential districts that may adjoin. A 9.
    C-2 General commercial. This district is primarily intended to ACCOMMODATE HIGH-TRAFFIC BUSINESSES THAT FOCUS ON VEHICLE TRAFFIC. Where this district abuts a residential district, appropriate screening and landscaping will be provided to lessen associated impacts. Current residential uses are not considered nonconforming. As such, current residential uses existing at the time this Title was adopted are allowed to expand or to be re-established, if damaged.

    There are no other C-1 zoning areas along 10th Ave, so what makes this corner different? It is one of the busiest intersections in town and lays on a state highway entrance to our town. There is nearly no shared boundary street access from the adjoining residential neighborhoods. The existing businesses requesting the zoning change clearly serve Great Falls generally, not the primarily the nearby residential area.
    This corner is clearly spot zoned to accommodate some fantasy aspiration for a time long past that doesn’t match the reality on the ground other than the last small patch of undeveloped dirt where a new hotel could be placed. Anyone who thinks the 10th Ave/Fox Farm intersection is an example of “low intensity commercial activities that serve the nearby residential area” is smoking from the same pipe as commissioner Bronson. I wish an adult on the commission would just speak up and correct this long standing error and zone this corner as it has existed for decades not as a fantasy from 40 years ago.


  2. Bill Stuff - FUSION | architecture + design April 30, 2017 at 8:02 AM

    So you have to ask who benefits from the change in zoning. Is it the whole Fox Farm neighborhood or two property owners which are Town Pump & the Haverlandt’s. Both of those property owners knowingly purchased those properties with the current zoning in place. Lets be real honest about the intent of the zoning change request and not hide behind rhetoric. It is not about the 65′-0″ allowable height on the Motel. It is about what else can be built in a C-2 zone which would allow uses such as a Micro-Brewery, Vehicle Fuel Sales, Casino’s Type I, and Accessory Gaming. The owners of those properties talk about the fact they should be able to maximize their investment with out showing much concern for the adjacent property owners and the neighborhood to the south. What impact does allowing the C-2 Zone change have on an already too dense area of commercial development? Allowing the height variance would be a compromise by both parties. If the zone change is allowed it is poor planning. And wouldn’t that be the City of Great Falls picking winners & losers?


    1. Bill- Do you really think a zoning compromise on the town’s largest commercial arterial is appropriate or even wise? Why shouldn’t the property owners on this piece of 10th Ave S expect the same treatment as all other property owners on the same street servicing the same traffic?

      According to the DOT traffic data map, this intersection sees nearly 40,000 cars a day, in case it’s not obvious, that’s a lot. This corner’s development belongs to the whole town not just to the local residents who knowingly bought homes adjoining an interstate. The existing zoning code, existing development and common sense clearly demand that this corner’s zoning be cleaned up and made C-2.


      1. Bill Stuff - FUSION | architecture + design April 30, 2017 at 10:54 AM

        Yes I do. That is the whole intent of variances in the zoning code and should be used first to protect all of the property owners values and rights in the area.


        1. No, the whole intent of variances (ref MCA 76-2-323) is to bring fairness in the application on the zoning code. A variance is granted because of a uniqueness of the property that makes strict application unfair and not in the spirit of the code or to bring equity because of existing non-conformities adjoining a property, meaning you get to enjoy the same rights as your neighbors. In this case, a proper use of a variance would be to allow a casino, gas station, high rise hotel or fast food restaurant since the adjoining properties are already do not conform to C-1 zoning.

          Variances are not properly granted to fix bad zoning. The land in question is unquestionably “HIGH TRAFFIC BUSINESS” and any patchwork fix other than rezoning C-2 is just pandering to special interests. Pandering to special interests has been screwing up Great Falls for years, this town isn’t the play ground for the country club wannabies or the anti-casino types. If you don’t like casinos, contact your legislator and if you want quiet country living, move to the country.


          1. Bill Stuff - FUSION | architecture + design April 30, 2017 at 12:03 PM

            The site is unique in that it is adjacent to buildings that do not meet the 35′-0″ height requirement which is why the variance to allow the 4-Story Motel without changing the zoning is the common sense approach. But based on your last statement about not liking casinos it is apparent that this request for rezoning has nothing to do with having a 4-Story Motel. If I remember right the whole reason that casinos were allowed in the state to begin with was that the tavern association and the state legislature sold the idea based on all of the taxes revenue that would be generated would go to the public school systems. That did not work out so well.

            So we will continue to disagree. Have a great afternoon!

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