There’s an old proverb that says, “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.” But what happens when we, as a community, fail to follow the plans we make?

The Missoula City Council finds itself hovering over that very question as it considers whether to approve Sonata Park, a subdivision proposed on upper Duncan Drive in the Rattlesnake that borders city open space land. The Sonata Park developers want to build 38 homes on 34 acres—about one home per acre. City staff has recommended approval of the project, with the requirement that homes stay 100 feet away from city open space and out of two riparian areas.

But the 2005 Missoula County Growth Policy Update and the 1995 Rattlesnake Valley Comprehensive Plan Update recommend that density in that location should be much less—an average of one home per three acres. The currently unzoned area borders the north hills open space and serves as a corridor (for humans as well as wildlife) to the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area, a nationally recognized gem that offers Missoula the rare distinction of being a metropolitan area on the edge of a wilderness.

Growth is never an easy topic for Council, but in this case, state law makes it especially difficult. Two different sections of Montana code make conflicting demands on decision-makers: On the one hand, it says zoning must comply substantially with growth policy; on the other, it says subdivisions can’t be denied solely because they don’t comply with growth policy. That leaves the city trying to fit its subdivisions into an ambiguous and narrow gap, at least until state legislators tackle much-needed clarifications to their paradoxical laws.

But for now, in the case of Sonata Park, tripling the density that’s urged in existing planning policies insults the citizens and officials who spent hundreds of hours creating them. Tossing the plans out the window will destroy any remaining faith active citizens might possess that their earnest efforts to guide Missoula’s future carry some weight. For good reasons, locals have worked for many years to preserve the open spaces that connect Missoula to the wilderness. Council members, who will invite comment and likely issue their decision on Sonata Park at a Dec. 17 public hearing, would do well to bear them in mind.
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