Best laid plans 

Urban Planning

Comprehensive plan defines Missoula's outer limits

City and county search for the right incentives to control expanding population troubles

We continue our urban planning series in this issue with a report on Missoula's proposed comprehensive plan. Next week, the Independent interviews city attorney Jim Nugent, and tells three stories of dealings with the Office of Planning and Grants.

Call them growing pains.

Over the last decade, Missoula housing prices have gone up and rents have skyrocketed. Crime has increased proportionally with the population over the past seven years and so has traffic. While air quality has been on the mend, it appears -- according to the county's new transportation plan -- that the worst is yet to come, as toxic exhaust replaces road dust as the prime polluter in the valley.

With a population that's grown by 12 percent since 1990 -- a trend that's expected to continue with a 2 percent increase each year through the end of the century -- Missoula's city and county officials have been forced to try and come up with a plan of action. So last week at the Western Montana Fair, Mayor Mike Kadas, the county commissioners and others who sit on the 11-member Growth Management Task Force unveiled the latest draft of the Urban Comprehensive Plan.

The plan, which was originally adopted by the city and county in 1975, seeks to provide guidance in the face of this unprecedented growth. Officials are now working on a revision of the plan, which includes a proposal for an Urban Service Area -- a circle around the city wherein city and county agencies would systematically encourage development in some places, and discourage it in others.

For the most part, the new plan attempts to follow the light which guided the city and county's vision 22 years ago. It promises to provide direction as Missoula's governing bodies move to address zoning and subdivision regulations this fall. To that end, the revised plan outlines two of the original goals intended to maintain the health of the community.

First, it calls for the continued protection of "critical lands and natural resources," including wildlife habitat, air and water quality, and open space. Second, the plan states that human resources must be enhanced in areas ranging from education to housing to recreation.

"The comp plan," Kadas says, "provides guidance, but it has little force. In broad terms, it should give citizens a notion of where we're going."

The designation of the Urban Service Area -- where Missoula could encourage development by providing help with infrastructure improvements, such as sewers and paved roads -- has thus far been the most controversial aspect of the plan.

The Growth Management Task Force's circle around greater Missoula encompasses the I-90 corridor a little to the east of the Missoula airport, much of the Rattlesnake Valley and the Grant Creek area to the north, parts of the South Hills and the stretch of land that connects Missoula to East Missoula and Bonner.

Kadas defends the concept, saying that "we want to lend more credence to the notion of an urban service area. As the city grows, we need to not preclude the possibility that there may be urban-type development in some of these areas. We need to put in some teeth to provide some regulatory control."

Kadas points out that it will still be possible for developers to build outside the line, but that the lack of city-provided services will be a disincentive to do so.

County Commissioner Barbara Evans, for one, sees the notion of an urban service area as anathema to citizens' rights. In her self-proclaimed "ornery" fashion, she says that creating an urban service area will cause the sort of growth its architects say they are trying to avoid.

Instead of inviting developers to build in the urban area, she says, the regulations will drive land owners, and those working for them, far afield, where there are no rules about density, air quality or the sort of toilet they can use. Evans argues forcefully that this is another example of trying to over-regulate growth in the face of simpler solutions.

"From the federal government on down," Evans says, "they're trying to force this regulatory stuff on people until common sense is no longer there. I have a big problem with people who think it is their responsibility to tell others how to live."

In addition to not liking "the line around the city concept," Evans complains about what she sees as an "auto hostile" environment, reflected in the call for increased reliance on public transportation and limits placed on the number of parking spots to be built at both commercial and residential subdivisions.

"At every meeting I go to," she says, "they try to make people get out of their cars."

In contrast to Evans, city council President Craig Sweet says that he's disappointed the Urban Comprehensive Plan doesn't go further in regulating air quality. Despite the fact that it's mentioned as one of the goals at the plan's outset, he says, there's scant attention paid to the issue of transportation and its effects on the air.

Sweet says he thinks that ultimately air quality can drive attempts at managing growth. "I was hoping and looking for stronger language in the comp plan," he says.

Janet Stevens, Missoula's Chief Administrative Officer, notes that citizens who are concerned about these issues and others will have a chance to comment on the plan before it is finalized. Copies of the new version of the plan are available from the Office of Planning and Grants, and Stevens says the task force will hold meetings toward the end of August and into September to take public comment.

Stevens, who served as a county commissioner when the plan was last revised in 1990, says that this year's model focuses a lot more on details and implementation. "There isn't as much room for interpretation," she says. "Scenarios planning and former Mayor Kemmis' 20/20 program helped the community decide where it wants to go. This time, we've got a lot more recommendations for moving forward."

And that's a good thing, Stevens says. As the city and county move ahead on the potentially contentious process of deciding the actual rules for zoning and subdivision, she says, they can refer to the completed plan, which both of Missoula's governing bodies will have approved.

Stevens adds that while the plan is not intended as a regulatory tool, it can be used as such in the absence of other planning rules.

As for the future, Kadas says that he expects things to work out for the best. Even in the face of criticism, he says, he's found himself in a position to discuss things and address differences of opinion. He maintains that all he's interested in is making sure Missoula has an effective infrastructure -- and a strong civic culture.

"These issues deal with people's property," he says. "That makes them sensitive. But I want to make sure something gets done, and that we don't just spend all our time talking."

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