Builders’ one bright spot 

The Missoula Organization of Realtors (MOR) released the 2009 Missoula Housing Report Thursday and the numbers looked expectedly bleak. Foreclosures are up, annual sales are down, rental prices are up, lot sales are down and building permits are way down. In 2007, for instance, the city of Missoula issued 435 building permits. Last year, that number plunged to 290.

The downward trend spreads to the county and city building departments as well. Those offices, funded almost exclusively by building fees, have struggled to keep budgets in the black. The city building department laid off four employees this year, while the county laid off one. The Missoula County Clerk and Recorder’s Office also reports revenue 30 percent below the county’s projected budget, according to Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell.

One office, however, seems to be treading water. The Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) reports fees from the subdivision review process are actually up from last year and in line with budget projections. But nobody’s sure what to make of the increase.

City Finance Director Brentt Ramharter believes the trend reflects builders planning for an improved economy. Collin Bangs, a developer at the Missoula-based firm Coldwell Banker Steinbrenner, doesn’t know if those fees are residual projects lingering from the days before the recession, or if they do signal a possible building surge once the economy improves.

“One of the problems in the development industry,” Bangs says, “is that it takes you so damn long to do things.”

Bangs suggests one way to distinguish between new and lingering projects would be to assess the number of pre-applications for subdivisions. But OPG Director Roger Millar says that pre-application numbers aren’t completely reliable.

“Pre-aps are down,” he says. “But one of the questions I have on pre-aps is, ‘How many pre-aps actually result in applications?’ When times are good, we have a lot of people coming in and pre-applying with us and they may or may not follow up. Honestly, what I don’t know is, how that happens when times are bad.
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