Laura Seyfang, director of the Big Sky Community Housing Trust, Guy Alsentzer executive director and founder of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and developer Scott Altman were some of the attendees of the Dec. meeting. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Canyon development advances

Planned Use Development request approved

 The Quarry Big Sky, the proposed 175 acre residential and commercial development in the canyon has made it past another hurdle. Gallatin County Planning and Zoning Commission approved the Planned Use Development (PUD) request by a vote of 4-2. 

Big Sky LLC is proposing one hundred thirty-five single family dwelling units, 130 multi family dwelling units and 170,000 square feet of commercial space for the acreage behind where the gravel pit currently resides on Highway 191. 

"More to the merits of the project and weighing it – It feels to me like balancing these opposing and competing emergencies," Gallatin County Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said, citing workforce housing and safety in the canyon, the limited resources of the Big Sky area and the pristine environment. "Those are all important things and they don't exactly work great together." 

Commissioner Don Seifert said he was satisfied with expert testimony that the Gallatin River would not be impacted by the development and that there would be enough conditions and monitoring systems in place to safeguard water quality. 

“I believe that the testimony today, particularly from Dr. [Michael] Nicklen was pretty compelling to me. My concern was the wastewater treatment and Dr. Nicklen [a hydrologist] put on the record that it will not adversely affect the Gallatin River,” Seifert said. 

The monitoring systems will allow for any problems that arise to be quickly addressed, he said, and the numbers from wastewater testing will be made available to the public. 

“Believe me, the public will watch those monitoring numbers as we go,” he said, noting that the project developing in phases will be a benefit in mitigating any issues. 

Commissioner Joe Skinner also said he was convinced by the engineers that it was a reasonable and workable system. He further noted that without the PUD there would be a “lot of big houses there with individual septic systems.” He found the proposed development to be an improvement over what it could be. He also said it is a credit to the developer that workforce housing is a part of the proposal. 

“I think we all got stuck on the fact that we’re kind of on a precipice of approving something that might make it harder to get a water and sewer district [in the canyon],” he said. “ I think that’s where I was. Really, it’s a PUD like we’ve done lots of times in Big Sky, Spanish Peaks and Town Center was a huge PUD. It’s not uncommon. It allows for a better development in my mind.” 

The developers said they are in favor of a sewer district and a centralized system in the canyon and will install piping that will ease annexation of The Quarry Big Sky hook-up once one is established. 

In what Siefert deemed a “Hell of a process,” the long negotiation spanned several meetings and included a long list of questions asked by county staff and commissioners that the developer had to address. The project occupied nearly four hours of the seven hour Gallatin County Commission meeting on Dec. 12. 

“We grant them entitlements and they grant us some concessions, so to speak. That’s really what this whole thing has been,” Seifert said. 

Laura Seyfang, director of the nonprofit Big Sky Community Housing Trust was one of the speakers and said her organization had worked with the developer from the very beginning to try to best meet the needs of Big Sky. 

“It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but I think this handles a lot of the concerns of the Big Sky community,” Seifert said. 

What he also defined as a leap of faith was the developers’ primary selection for wastewater treatment for the development – the SepticNet system – and that it will be interesting to see how the new technology will perform in a real world scenario. Since the project is going in phases, it will be closely monitored, he noted. 

While the development is using the largest system available for SepticNet, those systems fall just beneath the gallons-per-day threshold that would bring them under increased MT Department of Environmental Quality (MT DEQ) scrutiny. 

“I would have better confidence voting for this if I thought that the applicants would be willing to monitor in the same way that they would if they had a discharge permit,” commission member Jennifer Blossom said, speaking the the concern of Gallatin River advocates and to the more stringent MT DEQ standards. 

Quarterly testing is what Blossom would prefer, but there is apprehension by the developers at the overall cost for the home owners’ association, as the development is partially geared toward affordable housing. 

"I still have trouble with the scope of the project and the lack of actual facts about what is planned and what's going to be done and where this is all going," commission member Trygstad said, questioning if all the square footage of commercial space would form hotels and motels and actually further contribute to the problem. "I guess I am still concerned about all the water quality – what's going to be going into the river. That discharge permit should be required just so that we have one more guarantee that the water is going to be the highest quality going into the river."

Trygstad inquired of Seifert as to the next steps for the developer once past the PUD.

The project will now go before the Gallatin County Commission as a subdivision, then subdivision review, preliminary plat, and then final plat, Seifert said. 

“This is not a hands-off from here on out. They will come under the microscope a few times before they get there,” Seifert said. 

Blossom said that she never expected to be making such pivotal decisions when she became treasurer - “deciding whether or not I would affect a water table in Big Sky or the Gallatin River or what the face of that would look like or what my grandchildren are going to see based on the decisions that I make.” 

“What are we doing? Are we rushing into something that someday I will have to live with?” Blossom asked.

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