Jim Morasko gestures across the street toward an empty lot, recently proposed for rezoning to accommodate an 8-unit apartment complex in Hamilton. Credit: Nathan Boddy / MTFP

HAMILTON — Jim Morasko points across River Street toward a vacant lot that has become the focal point for many on Hamilton’s residential west side. He’s not talking about the lot itself, however. Instead, he’s talking about the neighbors he knows who live beside it, as well as those around it in nearly every direction. Morasko and his wife, Brenda, have lived in their current home for 40 years, raising their three children who still live nearby. With nearly everything he says, the value he places on community and a safe neighborhood is evident. Also evident is his concern that the empty lot will one day be the site of an apartment building.

“I call it the pandemic land rush,” Morasko said, referring to western Montana’s popularity and growth that’s straining policy and practice in the Bitterroot Valley. 

Morasko’s concerns about the vacant lot are not speculative. The property was recently acquired by Pigman Builders, a well-known Bitterroot Valley business, which shortly thereafter applied to the city of Hamilton to change the zoning and allow an eight-unit apartment building to be built on the site. While the majority of the surrounding area is occupied by single-family homes, several parcels within the three-block area do have a mix of housing types and higher densities.

 “For years we’ve been told that the city wants mixed-use housing with an emphasis on infill. This housing definitely provides that.”

Chip Pigman, developer

At the first public hearing in October for the proposed rezoning, the city’s zoning commission heard extensive public opposition to the change, while the city’s staff recommended approval based in part on the proposal’s compatibility with the city’s comprehensive plan, which was adopted last August. The plan resulted from extensive public input and considered Hamilton’s existing resources, needs and challenges. 

“We really needed some updated guidance in terms of where growth is going, and how we’re going to serve that growth with things like water, sewer and streets,” said Matthew Rohrbach, Hamilton’s city planner.

While Rohrbach acknowledges that many residents of Hamilton and Ravalli County would rather not see growth, he said stagnancy is not a viable alternative.

“Hamilton is growing and changing,” Rohrbach said. “The area around is changing, and [we recognize] that we can’t just turn that growth off.”

The comprehensive plan is primarily a guiding document, but also foresees changes in Hamilton’s core residential areas, like Jim Morasko’s neighborhood. According to the document, Hamilton’s west side would be “anticipated to include a wider range of housing types, including single-family homes, ADUs, townhomes, and apartments with higher densities.” The same paragraph, however, includes the phrase that many people, like the Moraskos, are rallying around:  “This type of redevelopment and infill should prioritize scale and form of development to ensure that it aligns with surrounding neighborhoods.”

Chip Pigman, who served on a committee for the new comprehensive plan, defended his request to rezone the lot.

“For years we’ve been told that the city wants mixed-use housing with an emphasis on infill,” he said during a public hearing this fall. “This housing definitely provides that.”

The Hamilton Zoning Commission ultimately voted 5-2 to recommend denial of the rezoning, but it will be the City Council that makes the final decision. That public hearing will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 15. One of the two dissenting votes came from Commissioner Jessica Randazzo, who pointed out that the request “met the objectives outlined in the [comprehensive plan] and is zoning allowable in that neighborhood.”

Nestled in the heart of the Bitterroot Valley, Hamilton has seen its popularity soar in recent years, even before the pandemic sent scores of people searching for a new and slower pace of life in Montana. As home to the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a facility for biomedical research, as well as the Montana campus of GSK (formerly GlaxoSmithCline), the small town was already on solid footing when the Washington Post published “Small Towns are Dying Everywhere but Here” in 2019. The popular television show “Yellowstone”,” is largely filmed in and around Hamilton, and just this October Tonix Pharmaceuticals announced that it will build a $25 million facility here for the production of vaccines.

As growth and popularity surges, so too does the pressure on a limited housing supply. Prominently stated in the newly adopted comprehensive plan are the words, “Growing demand and competition for housing has made it increasingly challenging to not only afford rising rents and home prices but to even find an available space to call home.” Hamilton’s population, the plan noted, is expected to grow by 17% in the next decade. 

So pervasive is the housing shortage that most anyone in Hamilton can drum up at least one anecdote about someone they know who has lost or can’t find housing, or an employer who can’t fill positions on account of housing’s scarcity. Still, the obvious need for housing doesn’t mean that people agree on what “scale and form” a development should have in order to be compatible with its surroundings.

Nancy Valk doesn’t believe anything in the plan’s language is wrong, but she fears that future developers will always choose to build the maximum size allowed. Valk has taken an active role in keeping the neighborhood apprised of the rezoning’s status, and even built a cardboard mock-up of the vacant parcel, showing the potential size and shape of the proposed building in contrast to what current zoning allows.

“The kicker with the high density is ‘what can be done,’” she said, stressing that the higher-density zoning would allow builders to construct an apartment building of up to 10 units, at a height of up to 45 feet, which she says would dwarf surrounding homes. Like others, Valk said her concerns boil down to scale, compatibility and precedent. She conceded that she could imagine a duplex on the site and potentially even a four-plex, but she sees no reason for a larger building.

“You change single-family residential in one lot, and you’ve set the precedent,” she said. “You’ve got to stand up and say, ‘No, we don’t want this.’”

Carlotta Grandstaff, a former Ravalli County commissioner, has spent years looking at planning and development issues in Ravalli County in her role with Bitterrooters 4 Planning, an organization that has sought to direct development in the valley in proactive and environmentally conscientious ways.

Nancy Valk sits by a cardboard mock-up she built to portray the proposed apartment building in Hamilton. Credit: Nathan Boddy / MTFP

“We’ve been encouraging what the city has been doing: infill buildings and building around the outskirts,” she said. 

Conversely, Grandstaff said the county’s approach has been to “build 50 homes in the middle of nowhere,” without regard to available services, infrastructure or habitat. Grandstaff doesn’t think the county will ever accept planning measures like those the city has made, partially because, “A lot of people have sought refuge in the Bitterroot because they think that there are no rules.”  

Still, Grandstaff said Bitterrooters 4 Planning has been asked to oppose the rezoning proposal, which she plans to do.

Darwin Ernst is a City Council member representing Ward 3, which includes the lot in question. He also serves as chair of the city’s zoning board of adjustment, is a residential appraiser, a real estate broker, and is active on the Bitterroot Affordable Housing Coalition. He is acutely aware of how the lack of housing impacts the economy and livability of the Bitterroot Valley, and he supports planning efforts to address those issues.

“I do feel that the comprehensive plan is a well-prepared document that has been fully vetted by public input,” Ernst said, adding that the document “provides excellent guidance for those who are charged with addressing our need for housing within the Hamilton community.”

While he and the other city council members will make the final determination on the rezoning request, Ernst understands how important such decisions are for the people who live in the area. “NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] doesn’t happen until it is in your backyard,” he said.

The debate between what is and is not compatible is one that Jim Morasko will undoubtedly be weighing when the rezoning request goes before the council. In the meantime, he continues to acknowledge that change is natural in a community, but insists that a higher-density development would change the nature of his neighborhood for the worse.

“There will be couch surfing, there will be who knows what, and you can’t blame those people for that,” he said. “We’re all pilgrims here.” 

When asked what he would like to see happen with the lot across from his home, he didn’t respond with a specific housing type or density. Instead, he said, “All I want to do is live out my final years in peace and quiet.” 

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Nathan Boddy

Nathan Boddy was born and raised in western Montana and is currently a writer and journalist based in the Bitterroot Valley. His varied background includes Peace Corps service in Guatemala, a master’s degree in environmental land use planning, and homeschooling of he and his wife’s two boys.