Representatives of FedEx Ground are still negotiating with neighbors of a proposed transportation hub on the West End, hoping to win over opponents before the Billings City Council meets Monday.
FedEx will ask the council to annex 97 acres of land at Hesper and Gabel roads and then approve a zone change on the property to pave the way for its $37 million transportation hub.
Since plans for the hub were unveiled late last year, tenants of Transtech Center, an adjoining business park, have raised objections to the project, citing concerns about incompatible architecture and landscaping, air pollution and traffic congestion.
The City Council was poised to vote on the annexation and zone change in February, but representatives of FedEx asked for a 30-day continuance in hopes of reaching some sort of agreement with the opponents before then.
After a series of meetings and telephone conferences in the past couple of weeks, business owners in Transtech Center sent a proposed development agreement Tuesday to SunCap Property Group, a North Carolina development company working for FedEx.
Jerry Thomas, chairman of the Transtech Center Owners Association, said the voluntary agreement asks FedEx to meet certain standards for building construction and landscaping and to take steps to address air quality and traffic congestion.
If FedEx signs off on the agreement, Thomas said, the Transtech tenants would withdraw their protest of the proposed zone change.
Enough property owners within 150 feet of the land in question have officially objected to the zone change to make it a "valid protest." That means the zone change would have to be approved by two-thirds of the City Council members present and voting Monday. Councilman Brent Cromley said at the last meeting that he would recuse himself from the vote because his law firm has represented FedEx.
If the protests were withdrawn, the zone change would need only a simple majority to pass.
Jon Phillips, a first vice president with SunCap, said Wednesday that he had received the proposed development agreement Tuesday night. It has to be reviewed by several other parties, including attorneys and FedEx officials, he said, and he hopes to have a response ready by the end of the week.
FedEx has already agreed to some provisions of the agreement, Phillips said, having offered to move the truck docks to the west side of the building, to use concrete walls instead of metal and to put in a lot of landscaping — including an 8-foot berm — particularly on the south and east sides of the property.
FedEx has also agreed to widen Hesper Road between the entrance to its property and Gabel Road and to install sidewalks, curbs and gutters, in addition to turn lanes at Gabel and Hesper.
"I feel like we're bending over backward to be good neighbors, and it's extremely expensive to be doing what we're doing," he said of the improvements.
As for air quality, Phillips said an independent study, the results of which are being made available to the City Council and neighboring property owners, show that air pollution emitted by the truck center will be well within Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Ken Peterson, an attorney for the Transtech interests, said previously that there was no basis for objecting to the annexation itself, but many tenants of the business park signed petitions and wrote letters to the council asking it not to approve the zone change.
Nicole Cromwell, the city zoning coordinator, said zone changes are supposed to be evaluated on the basis of whether the change satisfies 10 criteria laid out in city code. The criteria ask questions like whether the zone change will promote public health and general welfare, whether it will be compatible with urban growth and whether it will encourage appropriate land use.
The controlled industrial zoning, she said, is one of the broadest designations, allowing everything from a Wal-Mart-size store to a gravel pit or a cement plant.
The Transtech Center itself is zoned controlled industrial, though covenants impose all sorts of rules and guidelines on property owners within the business park.
The zone change is supposed to deal only with the property, not plans for the property, Cromwell said, because there is no guarantee that the entity seeking the change will end up using the parcel.
"We always stay focused on the 10 criteria," she said.
Later, the city would work out a subdivision improvement agreement with the property owner, but that mainly has to do with ensuring the provision of city services like water and sewer, and lays out what sort of street improvements would be needed.
Phillips and other representatives of FedEx, including the author of the air quality study, plan to attend Monday's council meeting.
Another neighboring property owner, meanwhile, said he has dropped his opposition to the FedEx facility. Matt Brosovich, one of the developers of Broso Valley Park, just southeast of the FedEx property, said his talks with Phillips were fruitful.
"I always had a feeling they were going to do the right thing, and they're doing it," he said.
He said he was satisfied what he heard about what the new truck center would look like, especially since nearby property owners "just don't ... have authority to control" what FedEx wants to do with the land.
Brosovich also said FedEx appears to be willing to do what it can to improve traffic flow in the area.
Since the opposition from Transtech tenants surfaced, some people have questioned how the business park could object to FedEx's plans when Briggs Distributing already has a warehouse with multiple loading docks in the business park.
Thomas, chairman of the Transtech owners group, said Briggs meets all the business park covenants and is a much smaller operation than the FedEx hub would be.
"I never see their vehicles," he said of Briggs. "It's not like what we're going to see with FedEx. We know that."
At a Zoning Commission hearing in early February, Phillips said the FedEx hub, which could eventually employ as many as 400 people, would include a 140,000-square-foot building. He also said it would generate about 600 trips a day, counting both line haul trucks and package delivery trucks.
One other matter that raised questions among the council and the public has to do with wages at the truck center. In documents submitted to the city by Dowl HKM, a Billings engineering firm working for SunCap, it was stated that wages at the FedEx facility would average between $37,000 and $46,000 a year.
Phillips said Wednesday that those figures were inaccurate, but that he couldn't say anything more because information on wages would have to be released by FedEx. As far as he knew, Phillips said, the figures in the documents submitted to the city were supposed to be placeholders, and he doesn't know where they came from.
Rick Selensky, with Dowl HKM, said he submitted the documents to the city but he wasn't authorized to say anything about where the dollar figures came from.