Like many others, I disagree with the City Commission’s decision to deny a Conditional Use Permit for M&D Construction.
Since the issue caught my interest, I wanted to see our elected officials in action. So I watched the video, which anyone else can, too, here.
There is much to say about it all, but I found myself transfixed by the public remarks made by Mayor Bob Kelly. Here’s what he said before calling for the eventual 5-0 vote that buried a local business:
“I’d just like to jump in here a little bit and come at this a different way as well as some of the technical aspects that have been mentioned here. And Bill [Bronson], I appreciate your thoroughness in what you described here, I really do. One of the other things to think about here is we have a responsibility to the citizen who launched the complaint and to the process that’s involved here. They saw something, they did the formal process, found out that what’d been going on for years was in fact not right. That has to be weighed.
Certainly all of the aspects about what is going to happen to that lot if the current tenant moves away from it, certainly the construction shops and the things that are there are fine. We are really just talking about a massive parking lot for large equipment, but in essence the property was not supposed to be used for that. We had a citizen register a complaint, we’re following up and saying, we’ll just change the game here midstream and kind of make it legal. I’m a little uneasy with that, frankly. It’s not gonna come to bare on my decision, but I think it needs to be mentioned.
When we find a situation that a citizen has registered a complaint against, you find it’s been illegal for years, I don’t think necessarily the correct remedy is oh, let’s change the rules and make it legal. The rules existed at one point for a reason and hopefully they continue. As everybody else has said here, this is not a statement on business or owners, etc. It is about best and highest uses, as Mr. Blewett had said earlier here. In a sense, we can be shooting ourself in the foot. We have an opportunity to put lipstick on this thing. If we don’t allow that to happen then there’d be no need for the owner to make any changes there and you can just have an incredibly unappealing lot there which is what it is. [emphasis added]
I share the concerns about traffic. I live in that neighborhood, and the amount of heavy traffic that is coming down to go into those smaller access points is not only in my opinion dangerous, but it is also incredibly unappealing for people who come down to the park to enjoy it there as well. [emphasis added] Those are all my comments here. In respect to Commissioner Houck, I don’t see anyone here who wants to table this and proceed on. OK on this. The motion has been made to deny the Conditional Use Permit. All those in favor of that motion say, aye. [All ayes]. Opposed? [None]. Okay, so that motion will pass.”
The sight of industry really seems to get the mayor’s goat, doesn’t it? So Kelly finds the lot, a place of business that employs 30 of the citizens he represents, to be “incredibly unappealing”? It might be one thing for him to hold this view privately, but I was surprised that the mayor delivered his harangue from the commission chambers (while using it as partial justification to vote against a local business no less). But don’t worry, this isn’t “a statement on business or owners.” Oh no, of course not. It’s about “best and highest uses.” OK, then. What exactly does the mayor think should exist on this particular parcel of land? You know, the one with the railroad right nearby? In Kelly’s mind, what would be the best use? And what would he find appealing enough to warrant existing there?
But it isn’t just the lot that is an affront to Kelly’s sense of taste. Why, it’s the mere sight of work vehicles, from Kelly’s vantage point in Gibson Park. Really? I’ll admit that, until now, I haven’t given much consideration to what I think when I see a dump truck or a bulldozer roll along the road. Inasmuch as I do have an opinion, though, I suppose I view construction vehicles more positivity than the mayor does — things are being fixed or built, people are working, money is moving around in our economy, etc. You know, all the things politicians like Bob Kelly claim to support.
The problem with Kelly’s comments, beyond the inherent absurdity of them, is that they are instructive of a government official who thinks he knows best and wants to impose his vision of aesthetics upon the rest of us. It’s the same strain of silly thinking that gave Great Falls its disastrous, anti-business Sign Code. We saw enough self-righteous posturing a decade ago over casinos. Now construction companies are a blight? Isn’t Great Falls a blue collar town? Shouldn’t we be championing, rather than impeding, our local businesses?
Now you might be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute! The mayor raised concerns about traffic. This is about public safety!”
As one Facebook commenter pointed out, the traffic on 8th Ave N from M&D pales in comparison to that from United Materials:
If Kelly and the other commissioners were truly concerned about traffic on this corridor, they would weaponize the city’s bureaucracy against United, who, you guessed it, also appears to operate in a way that is perhaps not congruent with the city’s own zoning code. Their business is “light industrial”?
But they won’t, and that’s a good thing. United (who I have zero issue with, by the way) does far too much business with the city for the commission to go after them, and let’s face it, this was never a public safety issue, not really. This was a classic example of government picking and choosing winners and losers in business, and this time, M&D — who has been in business for 30 years — gets to be the big loser.
Having said all that, one of the most frustrating parts of the meeting was something that didn’t happen. Our mayor, the face and ostensible leader of our city, who has positioned himself as a pro-growth collaborator, didn’t mention that this Conditional Use Permit was strongly recommended by city staff, unanimously approved by the Neighborhood Council, and then also unanimously approved by the Planning and Zoning Board. It’s beyond disappointing that Kelly refused to put the breaks on the opposition (initiated by Commissioner Bronson) and say something to the effect of, “Hold on, this thing clearly has support, and 30 jobs are on the line. Shouldn’t we at least discuss that?” But he didn’t. Kelly was 100% committed to delivering the kill-shot to M&D. I wonder if the prospect of putting up even a token fight in favor of a Great Falls business was just as “unappealing” to Kelly as those unsightly excavators?
Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I find the mayor’s comments to be remarkably out of touch. Frankly, the only thing I find “incredibly unappealing” is Kelly’s increasing tendency (remember Calumet?) to cast votes against, not for, local businesses.