Powder Light workforce housing lawsuit settled
Project hinges on TIGER grant funds
Gallatin County Commissioners approved a conditional settlement agreement with developer Scott Altman and other developers involved in A2LD, LCC on Jan. 29, effectively bringing a 14-acre, four-lot mixed commercial and residential development along Lone Mountain Trail back to life.
In May of 2017 A2LD submitted applied for a major subdivision preliminary permit with Gallatin County – that application was shot down by commissioners in November of that year– citing the lack of and need for turn lanes into the subdivision along Highway 64 (also known as Lone Mountain Trail) as the main reason for doing so.
A2LD soon filed an appeal in the state district court, suing the county. Subsequently Gallatin County and the developer agreed to enter into settlement negotiations. In the spring of 2018 it was announced that Big Sky was awarded a federal TIGER grant which would bring significant road improvements to Highway 64. That included covering the cost to add left-turn lanes into the Powder Light subdivision.
As part of the current settlement, the cost to install two right-turn lanes into the development, estimated at $194,684.12, will be paid by the developer to the county if it is determined those lanes are required.
In light of the turn lane additions, and addressing several changes in conditions unrelated to the overall project plan, the commissioners again considered the Powder Light development at their late January meeting.
Commissioner Don Seifert – representative for the county district Big Sky exists in – voiced his concerns. While it was announced and understood Big Sky will receive the TIGER grant – he pointed out that the grant has yet to be formally awarded.
“We don’t know when it is going to happen,” said Seifert at the Jan. 29 meeting, “We’re sort of negotiating, but we don’t have a firm date of when we’re going to get actual notification to proceed. So, we’re in this sort of holding pattern.”
Gallatin County Attorney Erin Arnold explained that if the TIGER grant did fall through, the uses of lots two and three do not hinge on the grant, but lot four’s housing plans would rely on the federal money being issued. If it does not go through, “Then that will be an issue for the parties to then confer in good faith and determine whether or not the agreement can still be performed,” said Arnold. “Because it is based in large part on the TIGER grant being awarded and fulfilled.”
An issue Seifert originally took with the project was the developer’s disregard for subdivision statutes. Once a developer applies for a preliminary subdivision approval, they cannot start laying roads. But that’s just what A2LD did, “And they admitted it in the first hearing,” he said.
That discrepancy arose at the Jan. 29 commission meeting when Seifert inquired with Mindy Cummings, attorney representing Altman and A2LD, about the construction equipment he’s seen on the Powder Light property as he’s driven past in the past year – during a time when work has been on hold. “Are they moving dirt in there?” he asked. “Because it looks like they’re moving dirt.”
Probably what Seifert was seeing, said Cummings, was Altman’s equipment being used for other excavation projects in the Town Center. No ground work has been done since the project was denied a year ago, said Cummings, who passes by the location daily. “Not that I have seen,” she said.
Seeing no public comment, the commissioners placed their vote – Commissioners Joe Skinner and Scott MacFarlane in approval and Seifert against.
Following the settlement agreement approval, Seifert discussed his dissenting decision with the Lookout. Despite studies showing otherwise, he said, the developer sued the county with the opinion turn lanes were not warranted. With the windfall of federal funds to pay for the lanes, the county and developer were able to come to an agreement.
“This affirmed what we saw, that we needed turn lanes,” said Seifert, who disagreed with the process taking place. “But doing it through the court was not the right way to do it. If TIGER had not come in, they would have continued to say turn lanes weren’t warranted.”
Despite the procedural discrepancies, Skinner supported the agreement. “Even though it’s a different process, I think there are some extraordinary circumstances here with the TIGER grant, and so I think it does facilitate an agreement,” he said, concluding that it’s a reasonable consensus that’s good for all parties.
MacFarlane, admitting he was not serving as commissioner when the first vote was made over a year ago, said he’s done his best to catch up on the project, and thinks the settlement agreement is the best chance to move forward.
The commission will add the Powder Light subdivision’s preliminary plat approval to its consent agenda in the coming weeks; its approval then will effectively pave the way for work to begin on lots two and three, while lot four and the housing planned for it, await the issuance of the federal TIGER funds and installation of the much-discussed turn lanes.