By a 10-1 vote, the Billings City Council turned down a zone change request Monday that would have allowed a gymnastics facility to be built in the West End.
Councilwoman Denise Joy cast the lone dissenting vote.
With a valid protest in place — 25 percent of the closest neighbors having registered their opposition to the proposal — approval would have required eight affirmative votes from the council.
Zoning on the parcel, at 4046 Avenue C, would have had to change from Residential Professional to Community Commercial for the proposed 16,500-square-foot gymnastics school to be approved.
Due to a quirk in the city’s zoning code, similar uses, including dance and martial arts studios, are allowed under Residential Professional zoning — but not a gymnastics school.
Neighbors said they were concerned about safety issues, increased traffic and adverse impacts on their property values if the council approved the zoning change. Many of the large number who testified were careful to say they didn’t oppose gymnastics or children — just that facility in their neighborhood.
“We moved where we did because it is an area of older people,” said Thelma Albrecht. “There are other places it can be. The area was developed for older people, and we have earned the right to live in peace.”
Supporters of the planned facility and opponents packed council chambers Monday. Others sent council members emails in the days leading up to Monday's hearing.
The applicant, Darcey Frewin, said her plan was also to open a preschool in the facility. She said she planned to offer scholarships to make the facility affordable to a number of gymnasts, some of whom are on a waiting list at the city’s only existing gymnastics facility, Billings Gymnastics School.
Asked if she had a Plan B if the council did not support her application, Frewin said she did: “I stay at home and raise my six kids.”
Erin Walker, whose volunteer work includes helping to recruit physicians to Billings, said that having “family services such as this gymnastics studio is the number one draw for professional families.”
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One resident who lives nearby, Clinton Young, noted that those who spoke Monday in favor of the project “do not live in our neighborhood.”
At least one neighbor took a lighthearted approach. Noting that Fuller Family Medicine was nearby, Ernest Jennings said that, “if this thing gets approved, maybe we’ll need a head doctor in there.”
During their deliberations after more than two hours of testimony — which Mayor Bill Cole held to three minutes using a timer that counted down the seconds and buzzed loudly — some council members said they were dissatisfied with a zoning code that allows similar businesses in Residential Professional zoning, but not the one that Frewin proposed.
Planners are working on updating both the city and county planning codes, but the arduous process could take a while.
“This would be a good public entity to have, but we’re looking at a 30-year-old code that says gymnastics shouldn’t be there,” said Councilman Frank Ewalt. "Can we make this happen sooner? I really think that’s what we are supposed to do here — solve problems.”
Earlier, the council gave unanimous approval to special review to allow a 60-foot wireless communications facility with microwave dishes and a future antenna.
The council voted 9-2 to allow a zone change — also from Residential Professional to Community Commercial — on a 1.42 acre parcel north of Rimrock Road and west of 62nd Street West, within Ward 4.
Both the ward's representatives, Penny Ronning and Ryan Sullivan, voted against the zone change.
Police Chief Rich St. John presented Gazette carrier Kathy Doney with a citizen certificate of award for her “selfless” efforts on Dec. 7, which “surely saved a man’s life.”
Early that morning while delivering newspapers, Doney found a man with cuts and bruises who’d fallen the previous afternoon and was unable to get up. After lying outside all night in 30-degree temperatures, the man developed hypothermia, St. John noted.
“In this day and age when so many choose not to get involved, Kathy did the opposite,” St. John said. “She embodied what is great about Billings — selfless service.”