Big project, big objections underlie zone change action

2013-02-25T00:15:00Z 2013-04-09T07:31:05Z Big project, big objections underlie zone change actionBy ED KEMMICK ekemmick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Ordinarily, you'd think the city would roll out the red carpet for a national company hoping to come to Billings and create up to 400 relatively high-wage jobs.

But in the case of FedEx Ground, which is proposing to spend $37 million to build a transportation hub on 50 acres of vacant land in West Billings, the situation is not quite so simple.

A group of prominent businesspeople and developers is opposed to building the hub next door to the Transtech Center, which bills itself as "Montana's Most Advanced High-Tech Business Park," and also near an expanding commercial subdivision off Zoo Drive.

The City Council will have to consider these conflicting interests Monday night when it votes on a request to annex the land in question. If the annexation is approved, the council will then vote on a zone change that would allow FedEx Ground to use the property for its transportation hub.

The opposition has already created one wrinkle in the process. Enough property owners within 150 feet of the proposed zone change have officially protested the change, making it a "valid protest."

That means the zone change must be approved by two-thirds of City Council members present and voting Monday night. Normally, a simple majority is needed to approve a zone change.

A further wrinkle developed last week, when the owner of the property and a representative of the North Carolina development company working for FedEx sent a letter to Mayor Tom Hanel and the other 10 members of the council.

The letter was from Billings resident Greg MacDonald, representing the landowner, Industrial Planning Associates, and Jon Phillips, a first vice president with SunCap Property Group. They said they had learned that opponents of the project have been lobbying some City Council members, and perhaps had already persuaded them to vote against the project.

In the letter, they raised the possibility of asking these potentially compromised council members to recuse themselves from the annexation and zone change votes.

Hanel told The Gazette he "would probably have to honor" such a request.

The property in question consists of just over 97 acres on the northwest corner of Hesper and Gabel roads, directly west of the Transtech Center.

The annexation request is fairly cut and dried. Ken Peterson, an attorney representing nine of the property owners opposed to the development, said there is no basis for opposing the annexation.

"We're just protesting what they want to put there," he said.

The opponents aired their concerns at a City Zoning Commission hearing on Feb. 5. The land is now zoned agricultural-open space.

The developers are seeking to have the land zoned controlled industrial, identical to the zoning on all city land abutting it, including the Transtech Center. The developers plan to use 50 of the 97 acres for the FedEx transportation hub, constructing a 147,000-square-foot facility.

At the hearing, opponents said the truck center would not be visually compatible with buildings in the Transtech Center, would increase traffic congestion in the area and may generate unacceptable levels of air pollution.

One of the opponents is Jerry Thomas, chairman of the Transtech Center Owners Association and former director of the quasi-public development agency now known as Big Sky Economic Development.

In a letter to the Planning Department in November, just after FedEx's plans became public, Thomas said the owners association wanted to "go on record as strenuously opposing the planned usage," citing its incompatibility with the business park.

Matt Brosovich, one of the developers of the Brosvo Valley Park subdivision just southeast of the proposed trucking hub, also protested, sending in a three-page letter outlining his objections.

He said the three hotels and two large medical facilities in his subdivision would never have considered locating there "if they were aware of an industrial project of this size adjacent to their operations."

Last Thursday, however, in the wake of SunCap's letter about outside pressure on council members, Brosovich wrote another letter to the mayor and council, withdrawing his objections. He said he now supports FedEx, though with several conditions.

One had to do with needed improvements to Gabel Road south of Hesper, which was never developed to the level envisioned by the city, Brosovich said. Another concerned air quality.

At the Zoning Commission hearing, Phillips said SunCap and FedEx Ground have built similar hubs next to "Class A office spaces, residential neighborhoods, and other sensitive land uses," most recently in Redmond, Wash., and Windsor, Conn.

In their letter to the City Council, Phillips and MacDonald said SunCap has tried to meet with Transtech tenants.

"Despite our efforts," they wrote, "we have been met with an inexplicable resistance to engage in meaningful discussions."

They also said it would be "legally insupportable" if the council were to deny the annexation based on whether or not the FedEx project meets the standards of the covenants and restrictions voluntarily adopted by the Transtech Center.

Even so, they continued, FedEx is planning to create so much landscaping to buffer the truck hub from its neighbors that the facility, which would normally occupy only 25 acres, will here take up 50 acres.

Phillips and MacDonald said the objection based on traffic congestion "is very simply, a red herring." A traffic study showed the hub will generate only 670 daily trips, compared with 3,580 trips a day generated by the Transtech Center, they said.

They also said that the developers have already agreed to fund almost $2 million worth of improvements to Hesper Road. As for air quality concerns, they said  an expert would present her findings on that question during the meeting on Monday.

And while the opponents have said there are many other better parcels for FedEx to build on — in particular a parcel south of the interstate on South Frontage Road west of the King Avenue interchange — Phillips said they were all evaluated and rejected for various reasons.

Thomas, representing the Transtech tenants, said that in light of the allegations raised in Phillip and MacDonald's letter, they would have nothing more to say until the council meeting.

He did say, however, that the owners association was only trying to present information and "we haven't been pressuring anybody."

Ward 3 Councilwoman Becky Bird saw it that way. She said she and Ward 1 Councilman Jim Ronquillo were the only two council people to attend a meeting of adjacent property owners last month. She said she went because Transtech is in her ward, while the main alternative site proposed for FedEx is in Ronquillo's ward.

"They were talking about their concerns," she said. "Nobody asked me to do anything."

Still, she said, she doesn't want to "sully" the process and would consider recusing herself from the votes if there are strong objections to her having attended the meeting.

City Attorney Brent Brooks said recusal is always a personal decision for council members to make, and that when the FedEx matter comes to the floor he will probably ask all council members to say what sort of outside communications they've had on the issue, if any.

Phillips said SunCap would like to start building the truck hub this spring and have it in operation by June 2014. Initial plans are to hire 200 people and double that number eventually. Wages at the hub are expected to average between $37,000 and $46,000 a year.

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