How we grow 

Missoula county growth policy now up for approval

There is no crystal ball that reveals the future of the land and people of Missoula County.

But an inch-thick document of philosophy, statistics and maps called a draft growth policy comes close.

Approved by the joint city-county planning board on July 9, the draft growth policy is now up for approval by the two governing bodies charged with managing growth in Missoula County.

The Missoula City Council will hold a public hearing Monday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m. in council chambers. The Board of County Commissioners held its public hearing on July 31.

Although not a comprehensive planning document—it doesn’t prescribe zoning within any specific area—the growth policy is a statement of what Missoula County looks like now and how it will evolve in the future, according to Cindy Klette, director of the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants.

“[Growth policies] themselves are not regulatory documents,” Klette says. “However, we are unable to adopt zoning unless we have a growth policy.” In 1997, the Montana Legislature mandated that counties adopt growth policies and authorized planning boards to prepare and propose drafts for approval. This was an effort to push citizens into planning for growth rather than being surprised by it. The hitch is that until the new growth policy is approved, the county cannot rezone land, for example, or adopt new zoning regulations.

Among other requirements, the new law demands counties examine existing conditions and trends, such as population, economy, geography and so on. Thus, the draft policy for Missoula County begins with an analysis based largely on the 2000 Census.

Missoula County consists of 2,600 square miles, almost three-quarters of which are owned by federal and state governments and corporations such as timber companies. The population is 95,802 and projected to increase by about 30,000 during the next two decades, mostly outside the urban area. Missoula County is a net importer of labor. While the labor force increased 34 percent during the past decade, the number of jobs increased 48 percent. Meanwhile, the median price of a home a decade ago was $87,220, and is now $136,000.

Another item required by the 1997 state law for the growth policy is a summary of goals and objectives, which had already been written for Missoula County and codified in other planning documents. Unfortunately, the old goals and objectives were not acceptable in their current form, but at least planners didn’t have to start from scratch.

“All the things growth policies are required to contain are good things,” Klette says. “We had them all in essence, but we didn’t have them all combined in a single growth policy.”

As a result, the Planning Board adopted old goals from Missoula’s long history of land-use planning. Missoula’s first zoning ordinance dates back to 1932, but the first master plan for the Missoula Urban Area wasn’t adopted until 1961.

In 1978, a separate plan was written for the unincorporated community of Lolo. And in 1983, the Comprehensive Plan was restructured to divide rural issues from urban issues.

In 1990, the urban portion was updated with an emphasis on planning at the neighborhood level. In 1994, a Growth Management Task Force was convened which soon issued a “themes” document.

Along the way, the county has developed issue-oriented plans for wastewater facilities, transportation, parks and open space. In addition, the county developed regional plans specific to various communities outside the city of Missoula.

This time, instead of holding extensive public meetings around the entire county, the planning board recycled the policy statements from the old regional plans for the new draft growth policy.

“We didn’t invent new policy,” says Klette. “We took current facts and compiled existing policy.”

Bonner area goals include accommodating expansion at the Champion mill, buffering the impact of Interstate 90, improving safety on Highway 200, and maintaining the Milltown Reservoir for recreation and natural habitat. Clinton area goals include improving road safety, controlling multifamily development, and promoting business ventures that would reduce the need for residents to commute to Missoula. Turah area goals include road safety and maintaining the rural atmosphere and open space with an emphasis on large residential lots.

Seeley area goals include sidewalks and bikeways through town, consideration of a community sewer, and increased fire protection. Potomac-Greenough area goals include a Community Hall.

Frenchtown-Ninemile area goals include additional access to the Clark Fork River, improved safety along roads past the elementary and high schools, and the development of convenience-style businesses.

Evaro area goals include improved safety on U.S. 93, an emphasis on large lot residential development and improved cooperation with the Confederate Salish-Kootenai Tribe.

Hellgate area goals include concentrated industrial development in planned business parks, clustered residential development, and improvements to Mullan Road near the Reserve Street intersection.

At the July 9 planning board hearing, residents mostly spoke in favor of the growth policy, according to Klette. Those who criticized it did so largely because they felt it didn’t contain enough “new” planning.

In response, the planning board added a last-minute amendment which recommends a full review in three years, satisfying both the state law that requires a growth policy before any changes in land-use regulations can be implemented, and the desire of residents to steer their own future.

“That was so we could adopt this as expeditiously as possible,” Klette says. “And so we could move on with the promise that we would open it up again.”

Copies of the draft policy are available online, at the Missoula, Swan Valley, and Seeley Lake libraries, or from the planning office for $8.50.

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