My Willow LLC condo conditional use permit approved
Planning department recommends zoning updates moving forward
Community members filled the Ennis Town Hall on May 13 for the Ennis Town Council meeting. At hand was the contentious decision regarding the approval of a Conditional Use Application which would allow for six three-story, four-unit condos to be built in the North Forty Subdivision in Ennis. The application was first submitted in late December 2020.
Madison County Planning Director Alex Hogle kicked off the meeting by explaining that since Ennis does not have its own planning board it utilizes the county’s planning department for conditional use zoning applications in the town via an interlocal agreement. After summarizing his staff report Hogle recommended approval of the My Willow LLC conditional use permit, subject to conditions of approval.
The three-level independently owned condos are designed with a garage on the main level and two residential units on each of the two upper levels. The buildings total height will be 39’3” – a source of contention for project detractors who stated vehemently at the meeting that the height doesn’t mesh other building designs in the community.
Homing in on zoning
The 1.5-acre lot they will be built upon is zoned Core Commercial Residential, which allows for a multi-family and single-family dwellings to be built, if a conditional use permit is applied for and received. The height max is 40’ in a CCR zone.
Hogle provided some background to the complicated zoning regulations which he said lack specificity. My Willow was designed under Residential Town Density standards, which are deferred to by an overlay zone known as the Traditional Neighborhood Development zone.
The TND zone, said Hogle, does not provide any hard and fast rules for standards like setbacks and minimum lot sizes. For specific uses the TND overlay encourages reference to other zoning districts that represent the type of proposed use. “It’s a little bit interesting how this all interweaves,” said Hogle.
One challenge that arose during the review had to do with aesthetics. The TND zone has a general statement indicating that a project should fit in with the nature of the town.
“Essentially trying to get at quaint, old western town look,” said Hogle, who opined that this may have been geared specifically at commercial uses. “So, for example, a Wendy’s doesn’t show up at the entry of town.” The TND does not, however, give guidance as to what the “look” should be.
Parking and access were another challenge during the review – parking and access in the front of a building are not allowed. This prevents large parking lots, said Hogle, but it presents a unique challenge for residential buildings which would have to utilize the side and rear locations for those uses. My Willow’s primary access and parking would be off of Otis Avenue. This contradicts the front access and parking rules, but Hogle felt the proposal was quite reasonable.
The issue at hand may very well be the TND itself. “There are many things about the TND that give me a little concern as a planner,” he said, encouraging the commissioners to begin quickly working on text amendments and even removing the TND until it can be reworked. “I don’t believe it’s legally defensible on many fronts, I think it’s problematic.”
A public comment period regarding the project, which is advertised to provide reasonably priced housing for families and workers, resulted in no input from adjoining property owners. The most substantial comment, said Hogle, came from Joe Brummel of Madison County Emergency Management in reference to the Madison Valley Rural Fire Department’s ability to serve the new development.
The department, said Brummell, does not have a tall ladder engine capable of fighting a blaze at a building nearly 40’ tall. Building spacing and internal fire suppression were also highlighted by Brummell. Nevertheless, regulations and requirements do not exist regarding these concerns.
The lack of public health safety criteria in zoning regulations is another substantial shortfall in the conditional use permit process, said Hogle. “I’m saying this on purpose in this public meeting because it needs to be recognized,” he said. “I believe it also warrants an immediate text amendment.”
Based on the limited criteria, stating that the design was a reasonable one and noting that more housing in the limited market would be beneficial, Hogle told the commissioners he recommended the project should be approved.
The condos will be hooked up to the town’s water and sewer system. To move forward the developers will need to add a third water and sewer stub to the plan. Unhindered access to the utility meters and shutoff valves will also be required.
This would not be the first project My Willow has built in the North Forty. Breeann Johnson is attorney representative for My Willow’s developer clients – one an Ennis resident and the other from out of state. Johnson said the developers recognize this multi-family project is very different than what the community has seen recently.
Johnson said My Willow’s developers worked diligently to check all the required boxes for the project, but sometimes were left searching for clarity.
“You’re not going to hear this come out of a developer attorney’s mouth very often, but some more specifics would be helpful,” Johnson said, highlighting her understanding that the town is working on updating its master plan and zoning regulations. “I’d like to get another run at the hopefully, again on a new project with some guidelines in place. We tried to do the best that we can, given the current permitting situation.”
The public speaks
A lengthy public comment, frequently heated and impassioned, included concerns from Maria Marzullo-Lake over affordability, handicap access, occupancy, increased water use, and impacted views for neighboring homes. “Let’s find a better way to grow without bringing the Bozeman type of growth to Ennis,” said Marzullo-Lake.
Jack Sammis, Black Jack Ranch Gallery owner, expressed his concerns about the lack of specificity in the planning process, stating a decision by the council would be premature and should be postponed. “There has never been a worse time for our families, for our children, for our relatives, than right now,” he said. “Coming out of a pandemic, for you to be talking about this money opportunity without saying, ‘How does it benefit our families?’”
Other commenters cited concerns over the height of the buildings, safety issues and the influx of Big Sky workers. Some even called for commissioners to resign. Despite attendees’ clearly expressed distaste for the project, the commission’s decision boiled down to whether the project met the community’s apparently outdated zoning rules and regulations.
Calls from attendees for a moratorium on building until Ennis’ zoning is updated were addressed by Commissioner Lisa Roberts, who cited Jackson Hole’s moratorium in the past. With no new homes and continued demand, home prices skyrocketed in Jackson. “Those unintended consequences can happen too,” said Roberts.
Commissioners, developer respond
“Yes, this project is big, yes, this project is not what everybody wants,” said Commissioner Kristy Ranson, who cited the challenges of working with regulations created decades ago. “There are a lot of loopholes in our zoning, the planning board did the best they can. We have to look at the fact finding and what’s here… we have to look at the facts and what’s put in front of us.”
Commissioner Roberts signed up to assist with the town’s ongoing zoning re-write four years ago. She said she had spent countless hours on the effort which was ultimately met with pushback from community members who did not want more regulation.
“This is where I’m raising my family. I don’t want to see Taco Bells, I don’t want to see Walmarts, I don’t want to see those types of things either,” said Johnson. “But at the same time, these are the regulations that are written. We have to follow them.”
My Willow’s co-developer Mike Sprout was born in Ennis and resides in the town. He addressed the project’s dissenters at the meeting, stating that he does have the best interests of the community in mind, bringing income to the town by using local contractors and the like to bring the project to fruition.
“I do care very much about this town,” Sprout said. “I understand every one of your concerns, I think about it all the time… and I am sorry that you’re frustrated with what we’re doing, but I’m telling you I have the best interests in mind.”
Heeding the planning department board’s recommendation, the commissioners voted to approve the 12-unit project’s conditional use application. Seventeen conditions were included, including the addition of another water and sewer stub, installation of a sidewalk on Otis Avenue, among other requirements.
Before ground can be broken on the project it’ll head to the state for further approval.
Anyone with thoughts on how the future of Ennis should unfold can provide their input soon, as The Town of Ennis is going through a master plan update. Community listening sessions are being held on May 27 at 6 p.m. at the Madison Valley Library and on May 28 at noon at the library.
A Zoning Board of Adjustment was recently created to decide hardship variance applications and ordinance interpretation appeals. Applicants are currently being sought after for the board’s volunteer positions.
The four-and-a-half hour May 13 meeting summarized in this story was recorded and is available on YouTube via a link posted at https://www.ennismontana.org/ departments/town-commissioners/