GREAT FALLS – In early March, the Great Falls City Commission held a public hearing regarding rezoning of an empty lot in the Fox Farm Area from a C-1 “low intensity” district to a C-2 “high-traffic” commercial district.
The commission ended up tabling the vote and having the planning department examine it with the central concern being the possibility of increasing traffic in an already congested area.
The department recommended designating the empty lot as a “Planned Unit Development” or PUD, which restricted commercial activity, and required the developers to work with the Montana Department of Transportation to mitigate further traffic problems.
The commission unanimously approved the planning department’s recommendation at their meeting on Tuesday night.
City Commissioner Bill Bronson explained, “We have more work to do regarding traffic congestion issues in the Fox Farm triangle. And, I as one commissioner, and I think I speak for everyone on the commission, we will continue to support initiatives to do that, and if it takes creating a separate neighborhood plan or neighborhood growth policy that addresses those issues so that we have guidance for future development that we can mitigate further traffic problems and maybe come even closer to achieving a better result.”
Town Pump requested the zoning change more than a year ago in order to build a 90 room four-story Sleep Inn/Main Stay Hotel in the vacant lot between the Holiday convenience store and Dahlquist Realtors.
The city said Town Pump worked with the planning department to come up with ideas to mitigate traffic congestion.
As a part of the PUD designation, Town Pump agreed to work toward designing traffic mitigation proposals, and agreeing to pay for all of the related road construction.
One proposal was for more stacking, or space, for cars traveling south bound on Fox Farm Road to make left turns.
An additional proposal was to build landscape-medians between the current businesses and the new hotel as to funnel traffic south to Alder Drive as the ingress route for the new hotel.
However, a citizen who worked in the GFPD Traffic Collision Investigation Department for more than 15 years was skeptical that the proposals will work.
Former Traffic Collision Investigator, Teddy Nault explained,”Some people are gonna take short cuts, my understanding it’s gonna be a raised berm there, however you have people that will become impatient with other northbound traffic, again they’re trying to turn to the left into the motel, and that two lane north bound traffic is probably not going to allow to many of them to go through, so we’re gonna have some collisions.”
Before the commission made their unanimous vote to approve the PUD designation, Commissioner Jones remarked that the majority of businesses in the Fox Farm Area are in fact C-2 “high traffic” businesses even though the area was re-designated as a C-1 “low intensity” district in the early 2000’s.
An example of a “high traffic” business in the area is Best Western Heritage Inn which boasts well over 200 rooms, a convention center and a casino. Other high traffic C-2 businesses include Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, Lucky Lil’s Casino and Dairy Queen.
The city also found that the hotel would have no noticeable impact in traffic in the area with roughly 55 cars going and leaving during the peak traffic time between 4 and 6 p.m.
A development such as a Tim Horton’s Coffee in that vacant lot would have a much higher traffic impact than a hotel.
Citizens who commented at the public hearing on Tuesday night noted that while the PUD designation does prevent a full casino from being built, it does allow up to twenty accessory gambling machines to be installed on the future premise.