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Missoula Annexation

DeSmet Public School Principal Matt Driessen stands on school property with two existing homes and the school behind him in the fall of 2018. Driessen is concerned that zoning of undeveloped areas around the school included in Missoula's annexation will turn DeSmet into an island surrounded by industrial use, affect the health and safety of students, and prevent development of affordable housing.

Annexation of about 3,200 acres around the Missoula International Airport will bring in more city tax dollars, yet increase the costs for some city departments like fire and police.

It also may hasten the demise of the struggling DeSmet School District, according to the school's principal.

Generally speaking, properties in the annexed area will see about a 20 percent increase in property taxes once they come into Missoula’s fold. But they won’t have to pay assessments for rural fire and county roads, and may see lower insurance premiums due to Missoula’s fire rating. The cost of providing fire services to the area is estimated at between $95,000 and $143,000.

The properties to be annexed include the Missoula International Airport, the Missoula Development Park and other industrial properties — with the exclusion of the MDP Technology District — and the Canyon Creek Village subdivision.

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Missoula Fire Department Chief Jeff Brandt writes that the new annexation will provide opportunities and unique challenges for the department.

“Taking on primary responsibility for the airport and the smoke jumper base will pose immediate training and response challenges,” he wrote in a report shared with the City Council. “Gaining access into the different areas of the airport terminal with TSA, learning flight line and runway protocols, and becoming familiar with airport hangars with multi-million-dollar aircraft are just some of the unique challenges.”

Expansion of the city’s boundaries also will add duties to an already short-staffed Missoula Police Department, which will be responsible for investigating crimes in the area proposed for annexation. Last year, about 1,000 calls for service on a wide range of suspected crimes took place there. Of those, about 100 may have been felonies — including sex offenses, burglary and stolen vehicles — that may need some type of follow-up investigation.

A staff report estimates the police department’s budget would need to increase by about $667,000 to provide the same level of services to the newly annexed areas. Yet estimates using data based only on the number of calls for service — with current staffing levels — to the area drops the anticipated budget increase to $282,400. It’s anticipated the department eventually will need three additional officers, two additional vehicles and two “civilian support specialists” in the records department.

In addition, “expanding Street Division responsibilities for the annexed area will result in lower levels of service for the entire city under current budget limitations” and will come with an increased cost of $168,000. The impacts to the parks department are estimated at $47,000.

Even with these additional costs, the annexation is good for Missoula and its residents, according to many of the staff members and council members. Dale Bickell, the city’s chief financial officer, estimates an additional $1 million in tax dollars annually, of which $120,700 would go to the road district and $60,000 to the park district. An additional $665,000 would go into the general fund coffers, which funds the police and fire departments.

Bickell said providing these types of city services will be a heavy lift initially, but noted the city has plans in place to help cover some of these issues into the future. Council member Jordan Hess added that this annexation represents a good planning process and will allow the city more control over future growth, including land use and traffic.

Yet questions remain regarding the DeSmet School District, which is concerned that zoning on a portion of the school property that’s included in the annexation — about 20 acres — will limit the school’s ability to survive. State Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, said adopting the proposed zoning as part of the annexation would amount to “signing DeSmet’s death warrant.”

“You have two choices. You can create a long-term, viable school — DeSmet — or let it be smothered by industrial,” Hertz said. “It’s very poor planning to have industrial uses surrounding a school district.”

The DeSmet School District formed in 1890, serving rural students and the families of railroad workers, according to Matt Driessen, the elementary school’s principal. Throughout the years, however, the airport and other industrial development grew up around the school. (While some children from Canyon Creek Village attend DeSmet, others are in the Hellgate district.)

The city proposes designating the school-owned property — 13 acres of the school complex and seven acres of residential — as a “light industrial” zone that would allow for development of up to 43 dwelling units per acre. The rest of the mainly vacant property around the school would be zoned light industrial.

Driessen said he’d rather see the school property zoning be attached to all the land near the school, just to provide an option for additional residences on non-school district properties. He’s talked to business owners in the area who would support additional housing there for their employees, and Driessen also sees this as a great location for entry-level homes.

“Residential is what we should have around the school,” Driessen told the City Council on Wednesday. “You have a fiduciary duty to watch over schools, and residential zoning if part of that.”

He believes the city is overstepping its boundaries by imposing its will on the school district, which is a separate governmental entity.

“Literally 10 percent of the school district is zoned residential. That’s it,” Driessen said. “They’re putting the health and safety of children at risk.”

Mike Haynes, the city’s Development Services director, countered that nothing the city is proposing has an impact on the school district, except for allowing what already has occurred with the mixed use zoning. He believes allowing for up to 43 units per acre on the school property is a compromise on the city’s part.

“It’s an industrial area, with heavy truck traffic. You shouldn’t be operating as residential here,” Haynes said, adding that no one who has purchased industrial-zoned land there would want to turn it into residential. “The horse is out of the barn as far as I can tell.”

Driessen countered that while there is industrial use in the area, the horse “is still in the corral and we can fix this” before the property is annexed into the city.

At the end of the lengthy discussion, Hess noted that “there are no good solutions here really,” while council member Gwen Jones added that it’s something that merits more attention.

“In my mind, a lot of this is school policy and we are the City Council,” Jones said. “It’s good for us to be good partners, that’s why this merits more attention.”

A public hearing on the annexation is set for 7 p.m. Dec. 10 in the City Council chambers at 140 W. Pine St.

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