GREAT FALLS — Tensions ran high in the city commission chambers this week, sparked by a proposal to greenlight the latest — and biggest — project in the city’s recent apartment boom

After a tense and at times haphazard public hearing Tuesday evening, the Planning Advisory Board and Zoning Commission recommended changing the city’s zoning map to allow a decades-old trailer park on the southwest side to be converted into a flashy new high-end complex. 

With 513 units, the River’s Edge Apartments would be the largest residential property of its kind in Great Falls. But momentum on the project slowed after a public hearing in December when residents and board members raised concerns about the likelihood of increased traffic congestion at the city’s busiest intersection, which is located just east of the property. Opponents also argued that building a pricier apartment complex could leave some of the trailer park’s residents with few relocation options. 

Supporters, meanwhile, said nixing the project would prevent the city from meeting its projected housing needs, which Brett Doney, president and CEO of the Great Falls Development Authority (GFDA), called “tremendous.” Despite recent projects, the city “hasn’t come close” to meeting those needs, he said. 

“When you have new development and the community grows, things will look very different. In this case, it’s very dramatic for the people who happen to be right there on that street, because it’s completely unlike anything that currently exists.”

Craig Raymond, Great Falls planning and community development director

More importantly, he argued, the debacle may have already slapped a scarlet letter on the city and discouraged interest from outside developers in a community that has historically been a tough sell.

“I’m appalled at the discussion today,” Doney said. 

The board initially seemed to be leaning against the proposal until criticism from Doney and others on the pro-development side appeared to prompt an about-face. During the hearing, Craig Raymond, the city’s planning and community development director, called it “one of the messier meetings I’ve ever experienced.” 

It was a scene emblematic of the hard questions on the horizon for the city of Great Falls as the community ramps up to meet unprecedented housing needs after decades of stagnant population growth. 

Like other Montana cities, Great Falls continues to struggle to respond to the implications of a pandemic-related influx of wealthier out-of-staters, coupled with rising construction costs. Both trends have pressurized the local housing market, pushing lower-income people out. Concerns about the situation boiled over last year when the city and a local church fought for months over the legality of a makeshift homeless encampment in a downtown parking lot. 

At the heart of the development debate are questions about what drives people to Great Falls, why they stay, and whether, after years without change, the community is willing to grapple with pros and cons that growth can bring. 

“When you have new development and the community grows, things will look very different,” Raymond said. “In this case, it’s very dramatic for the people who happen to be right there on that street, because it’s completely unlike anything that currently exists. And that’s understandable.”

One trailer park resident, a retiree who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said they have lived on the property for three years. 

“They asked me, ‘What’s your permanent address?’ and I said, ‘Well, here, if you’ll have me,’” the resident told Montana Free Press.

Roughly a year and a half ago, the approximately 15-acre lot was purchased by a North Dakota-based development company. Several long-term residents on the property had their rents grandfathered, although rents for newcomers and visitors have spiked. 

“People come here while they’re looking for houses,” the resident said. “It’s usually a transition place or a retirement place.”

Nearly two-thirds of renters in the Great Falls area live in units  between $500 and $999 monthly, according to a community housing study commissioned by the GFDA and released in November 2021. That data showed that though a quarter of the city’s rental units in 2019 ranged from $600 to $700 a month, those were all constructed more than 70 years ago. About three-quarters of the city’s rental units were built before 1980, compared to 53% in Missoula and 36% in Bozeman. 

“There have been very limited new apartment developments in Great Falls,” the study said. 

It’s a trend that developers have been hard at work to change. The planning board, for example, gave the go-ahead for a 432-unit project on the east side just a few months ago, and in May 2021, developers broke ground on the Arc Apartments, a 216-unit complex off Smelter Avenue. That project is owned by Farran Realty Partners, the same company that is now financing new housing for the city’s medical school, which is set to open in the fall. 

“I think we’ve been pretty pro-development in the past couple years,” said Dave Bertelsen, the chair of the planning board.  

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One of the board’s main concerns Tuesday centered around the expected growth in traffic. The land is in a tricky spot with limited access. It’s also next to the city’s busiest intersection. A traffic impact study conducted in September by Sanderson Stewart, the city’s third-party engineering firm, projected that, despite a moderate increase, traffic quality wouldn’t look much different from how it’s already expected to change due to forecasted population growth. 

“The reality is that there will be increased traffic,” said Brad Eatherly, a city planner. “No one’s not saying that.” 

But Michele Dick, who worked at the trailer park for 17 years, raised alarms about the challenges further congestion could bring.

“I’ve traveled those roads more times than I can remember,” she wrote in an email to MTFP after the hearing. “It’s bad now as it is.”

Julie Essex, a board member who opposed the project, also questioned where the park’s longer-term residents, which the resident estimated to be dozens of people, would live. The KOA, Great Falls’ other trailer park, is “full with a waiting list,” the resident added. 

“There is no place in Great Falls to accommodate these kinds of people, these transient, but not-so-transient people,” Essex said at the hearing. 

Amid the housing boom, a number of local organizations have gotten creative to adapt to the city’s changing needs, particularly for low-income residents. A three-story project downtown, for example, will create permanent supportive housing for “chronically homeless people.” Housed Great Falls, a group that formed in response to last year’s homelessness debacle, is also fundraising for a new type of homeless shelter

If the project is approved and there is demand for another trailer park, according Spencer Woith of Woith Engineering, “someone’s going to build another park.” Woith represented the developer in front of the board on Tuesday. 

He said a number of “very sophisticated, very intelligent developers” have recognized an “extreme housing demand” in the city. 

“They’re not all just randomly spending $110 million and hoping for the best,” he said. 

The zoning amendment will eventually go to the full city commission, which has the final say over whether to approve the change. It’s unclear when exactly the commission will consider the proposal, but that procedure will require another public hearing at some point. 

It’s a process that may become more familiar in Great Falls over the next few years as similar projects become, according to Raymond, “more and more relevant” and “more and more necessary.”

“If this community is going to grow, if that’s what we want,” he said, “there’s definitely going to be a couple of different things that we’re going to have to come to grips with and tolerate.”

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Zach Schermele

Zach Schermele, born and raised in Great Falls, worked as a multimedia journalist for the Montana Television Network in 2020. Prior to that, he covered education for Teen Vogue. He is a student at Columbia University, where he is an editor at the Columbia Daily Spectator, and an intern at NBC News.