Small town growth brings big city blues 

Three true stories of the challenges confronting those on the front lines of Missoula's planning and development battlefield

Photos by Jeff Powers.
Urban Planning

Perhaps one of the most demanding jobs in local government these days is that of planner. The key to planning and zoning, it seems, is keeping one eye focused on the big picture while the other one scrutinizes the details. What might appear to be a minor decision in the present -- like the width of a street or the height of a sign -- could have major consequences in the future. Even while mired in the details of the present, good planners take a long view because decades may elapse before they know for sure if their decisions and recommendations have made their communities better places to live.

"Urban planning" is a popular phrase bantied about freely in council chambers across the country. It means different things to each community, but the common problem is population growth and how to handle it, with zoning being the tool most often used.

In Missoula, such discussions encompass air quality problems, transportation, affordable housing and open space questions. It's a debate that's opened again and again, when developers try to reintegrate small businesses into residential areas, or get variances from parking requirements. The most recent example is the haggling over details of the Mansion Heights development, finally approved this week by the council, which will put 116 new homes on the side of Dean Stone Mountain -- a process that began in 1983.

Here in Missoula, the Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) employs 18 staffers who work on planning for both the city and county. There are planners who focus on current issues, and others who spend their time thinking about the long-term. There is a planner who just does rezoning issues, and another whose job is to review subdivisions; one employee works solely on enforcement, while another covers the information desk.

Despite all the hours put in by those staffers, Missoula City Council members and County Commissioners still spend a significant amount of their time on managing -- some say "micromanaging" -- land-use issues. As most council observers will tell you, the most contentious issues that show up on the agenda each week are about zoning and, often indirectly, planning.

One planner in OPG said that the office's work load has increased in recent years not because there are more projects coming in, but because the members of the governing bodies, particularly the city council, are asking more detailed questions. Tom McCarthy, an engineer with the WGM Group (a consulting engineering firm that represents developers, including the Mansion Heights owner), says that dealing with the city council "has become much more complicated, much more expensive." It's an unpredictable process, he says, because existing comprehensive plans and zoning regulations are moving targets; the rules are changed so often, he says, that regulations provide little guidance that developers can rely upon.

But it's a problem that may be inevitable, says council member Scott Morgan, who chairs the council's Plat, Annexation and Zoning Committee. Such "micromanagement" is bound to result, he says, from having a city council comprised of citizens, rather than lawyers or planners. "We're not professionals here," Morgan says.

It's difficult, he adds, to write general rules that will fit the specific details of each development. Further, Morgan says, council members tend to get bogged down in the minutiae of each proposal that comes across the dais -- there's an inclination to "keep their noses to the grindstone and not step back once in a while."

The development proposals dealt with by city and county officials do indeed vary greatly in the fine print. From proposals for neighborhood overlays meant to set design standards, to building entire subdivision plans from scrap, Missoula's planners and elected representatives struggle daily to deal with a wide range of visions for the community's future.

What follows are three stories that illustrate the complexities of the planning process at a time when Missoula is experiencing unprecedented growth.

Rattlesnake Gardens: Coming soon to a neighborhood near you

The idea of small-scale commercial developments within residential neighborhoods has been lost from the American psyche, says OPG planner Jennie Dixon. She says she was enthusiastic about working with the owner of the soon-to-be realized Rattlesnake Gardens.

"I was really excited to see this plan. We worked really hard with the developer to make sure this building was compatible with the neighborhood. Public gathering places: This is what we're lacking not just in Missoula, but around the country."

When Rattlesnake Gardens, located on the corner of Rattlesnake Drive and Powell Street, is completed, it will consist of a small market, coffee shop, greenhouse and a cafe with a European-style courtyard. There will be an apartment above the market and two above the cafe. The market and coffee shop are scheduled to begin slinging lattes in the middle of September, with the greenhouse slated to open its doors next spring. Locals will have to wait to wile away their afternoons in the cafe, however, until sewer reaches the property.

Michael Bennett, a Ward 1 representative on the city council and Rattlesnake resident, was one of two to vote against the project back in September 1996.

"My concern was that what was being proposed put an unfair burden on surrounding neighbors," says Bennett. He points out that the lot was originally zoned for two residential homes.

Bennett says he sees these kinds of projects as "the latest trendy thing to do," and he's doubtful that such a store will really change consumer habits. He thinks people will stop there when they want a six-pack of beer or their kids want some candy, but will continue to drive down the road to do the majority of their shopping at Buttrey's.

But Lois Herbig, the other Ward 1 representative who also lives in the Rattlesnake, was all for the project. Developments like this, she says, give more of a sense of community.

The plan took about four months to get approval, says the owner of Rattlesnake Gardens, Craig MacDonald. It took a special kind of rezoning called a planned unit development, or PUD, a kind of large-scale variance that allows the city to rezone a property from scratch. In this case, the PUD allowed commercial development within a residentially-zoned neighborhood.

MacDonald says he found the city "very receptive" to his ideas, but his neighbors less so. At least at first.

"Almost everyone [who complained initially] has come by and said everything looks great," he says.

Terre Meinershagen, an architect who helped design the project, says developers who want to do such innovative work have to learn to be patient. One of the owners of Rocking M Design, Meinershagen says he found both city officials and concerned neighbors to be willing to compromise as long as he remained flexible. "You can't go in with your plans already done and say, 'this is what I want.'"

Maloney Ranch: Down for the count

Planner Pat Keiley lays out a map of the proposed Maloney Ranch subdivision on his office floor. Three feet wide and more than four feet long, the map is dominated by shades of green areas which represent open space. Interwoven among the green splotches are three cream-colored clustered lots where the homes will go. Four dabs of red show future commercial developments, with schools, fire and police stations represented by four purple sections.

Back in 1994, the former owner of Maloney Ranch, Pat McCarthy, realized that running a cattle ranch was not going to be viable over the long haul. McCarthy (no relation to WGM's Tom McCarthy) sold the ranch that sits in the lower Miller Creek drainage to Roy Prock, a developer from Indiana. Last fall Prock, under the company name Maloney Properties Inc., submitted a subdivision proposal for Maloney Ranch to Keiley's office with the help of the WGM Group.

While much could change during the approval process, the subdivision has the potential to be huge. During the next 30 years, a total of 1,884 homes could be built on nearly 2,800 acres.

It's Keiley's job to make sure that new developments in Missoula comply with subdivision regulations' the goal being, Keiley says, to "try to make a subdivision as good a place to live as we can make it." He says he looks for things like transportation and pedestrian systems that connect neighbors and neighborhoods, and parks and open space for recreation.

Keiley points to the northern-most boundary of the Maloney subdivision where the largest portion of homes will go. Many of these houses will be within a quarter mile of commercial development -- the exact distance planners deem desirable for pedestrians. He circles a group of these lots, 112 to be exact, which comprise the first two phases of the development. Then he circles a second group of 47 lots near the southeastern corner, which were to be phases three and four. The plans for these 159 homes were the first to be submitted to the county for approval.

Commissioners did give the go ahead for the first two phases last spring, but turned down the second group of houses. The reasons, according to court documents, ranged from possible negative impacts on future residents from high voltage power lines in the area, to overuse of cul de sacs that might hamper emergency services, to concerns about water quality and quantity. Commissioners were also worried that the development's distance from services in Missoula -- forcing residents to drive everywhere -- would have negative impacts on air quality as well.

County Commissioner Michael Kennedy, who voted against all four phases, says that in his opinion, none of the phases comply with the new Miller Creek Comprehensive Plan, which was still being drafted when the Maloney Ranch development was before the commissioners.

Both the county staff and Kennedy say the developer pushed to have the plan approved before the new comp plan was finished, and that they were uncomfortable even looking at the proposal with a new comp plan in the works.

The commissioners' denial of the 47 house development is now in litigation because, according to court documents, the developer believes there was no basis for the denial.

The owner of Maloney Properties, Artie Dorris, refuses to answer any questions concerning the development. He did, however, express frustration with the commissioners: "We came to Missoula with this project that we felt would be good for Missoula, and if Missoula doesn't want it, there's nothing else we can do."

Keiley says he thought the entire project would have been presented to the county by now, and that he expects the developer's proposal for future phases to come into his office any day. But McCarthy says he isn't sure when the developer will want to move on the rest of the subdivision, saying only that "it's a 20- to 30-year project."

North by Northwest: A cooperative effort

Draw a highly detailed map of Missoula -- streets, alleys, sewers and water lines, houses, parks and the like. Seek out comments from the general public, neighborhood associations, business interests, public officials and local agencies on what the city looks like now, and how it should grow in the future.

Take those comments and set them down next to the map you've drawn. From the two, write up a set of guidelines and policy statements -- a plan -- that will provide a framework for development far into the future. You'll likely want to make sure the plan provides for adequate, affordable and varied housing; encourage business activity that will provide good jobs and a strong tax base; and you'll want a reliable, affordable infrastructure. You'll probably want to protect natural resources, such as air and water quality, and maybe some wildlife habitat. Your plan will have to address human resources -- things like health care, safety, education, recreation and culture. Do all of this, and then run a draft by the planning board and the city council to get their input and final okay. Voila. A zillion hours later, you've got yourself a comprehensive plan. Do this on a smaller scale and you'll have a neighborhood comprehensive plan.

Bob Oaks, president of the Northside Neighborhood Association, had been trying to do just that since the early 1990s, but without much success. OPG didn't have staff to spare to work on such a project, Oaks says.

But last year, when the city proposed building an interchange off Interstate 90 onto Russell Street (and then an industrial park to go along with it), people were outraged. The plan galvanized those living nearby into forming the Westside Neighborhood Association, in the hopes of keeping their streets from turning into an extension of the strip on U.S. Highway 93.

At that point, Oaks says, the Northside group decided to cash in on their neighbors' momentum and recruited them to work on a comprehensive plan. "Then we went to OPG and we had become more appealing," Oaks says, "because we were two neighborhoods working together."

Under the guidance of planner Philip Maechling, the two groups began to work out a plan last fall -- a project that will probably continue for at least another four months. Now a year into the process, the associations have committees working on issues like transportation, quality of life, housing and zoning. A core group of about 25 to 30 people have been working on the plan since the start, but monthly meetings have drawn crowds of more than 100.

"This is what community is all about in Missoula, Montana," says Linda Tracy, a Missoula City Council member and Northside resident, referring to the monthly meetings. It's a good way to come up with ideas, she says, and people suggest all kinds of things -- from creating pocket parks in vacant lots to developing a system of mini-buses that runs every 10 minutes.

When it's finished, one of the plan's main features will be the zoning of the unused open space that lies between the Northside and the Louisiana Pacific plant, running parallel between I-90 and the train tracks. While the land is currently zoned for mostly heavy industrial use, the neighborhoods would like to change that to allow for more flexible options.

The ultimate goal, says Oaks, is to create "integrated neighborhoods" with places for people to work, live, recreate and shop. While many suburban dwellers cringe at the thought of mixing homes and commercial buildings, these two neighborhood groups are not discouraging business or industry. They are willing to encourage mixed use, says Oaks, as long as businesses provide good jobs and are not environmentally destructive.

The neighborhoods' goals of maintaining a balanced mix of housing, retail and light industry, Maechling says, is challenging. "We have industrial zoning right next to residential. How do we make the two compatible?" he says. Finding an answer is another goal of the comp planners.

A major part of developing the plan has been simply to define the things residents like about the neighborhoods. According to Cathy Zabinski, president of the Westside Neighborhood Association, these things include a sense of history, old houses, big trees and neighborhoods on a smaller scale. "There are a lot of funky things about this neighborhood, but along with funkiness goes a lot of tolerance," Zabinski says.

The neighborhoods have raised $223,680 toward a $300,000-goal to fund the North Missoula Housing Partnership, a program meant to increase home ownership among lower and middle-income families, and to revitalize the neighborhoods by offering low interest home improvement loans to residents. The most current stats (from the 1990 census) have only about a quarter of Northside residents owning the homes they live in.

In the end, Oaks says, the object is to make neighborhoods that people will "like ... better so they'll stay longer and things will get better, not worse."


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Rattlesnake Gardens owner Craig MacDonald had to soothe
his neighbors' fears to get the Missoula City Council's
OK on his project. (Jeff Powers)

The Northside and Westside neighborhood associations
are not afraid of mixing commercial and residential development.
The neighborhoods have, for decades, been home
to both residences and businesses. (Jeff Powers)

Missoula County Commissioners shut down two phases of
the Maloney Ranch subdivision last spring,
citing a variety of fears. (Jeff Powers)

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