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010818-mis-nws-bridges-zoning-01

Lee Bridges stands in her sheet metal fabrication shop on her property in East Missoula where she lives. Bridges wants her community to come up with its own zoning designations through Missoula County rather than be zoned by the City of Missoula once they are annexed.

Proposed Missoula County zoning designations could increase density, preserve agricultural land and make it easier for people to run businesses out of their homes.

The Missoula County Planning Board will hold a public hearing on Jan. 15 to review major proposed changes to zoning regulations, land-use designations and growth policies in the fast-developing lands outside of city limits.

Andrew Hagemeier, a planner for the county, gave a presentation on the Missoula Area Mapping Project to the board of county commissioners on Thursday. The county’s Community and Planning Services staff are in the fifth and final phase of a long process to review the county’s land-use designations and take public input to create new guidelines for growth and development.

The big takeway from the meeting is that county planners want to concentrate future high-density housing near the Interstate 90 corridor and near industrial work zones going out towards Frenchtown. That’s because they want to make an effort to reduce commute times and greenhouse gas emissions while preserving open space and important agricultural soils, among other reasons.

Hagemeier said many meetings to take public input showed the people of Missoula County value open space, farmland and using existing infrastructure rather than developing every last piece of available land with new roads and low-density housing.

“We want compact development patterns,” he explained. “We’re really trying to focus our future growth. We have a constrained valley, so in the long term that’s how we need to grow."

The way Missoula has grown in the past is not sustainable in the future, he said.

"We want to limit the expansion of low-density residential, those half-acre plots that are functioning on septic and wells. We already have so much of it on the landscape and it’s not a very efficient land use," he explained. "There’s plenty of opportunity already on the landscape, so we don’t need to expand it.”

County Commissioner Cola Rowley said the county has budgeted $150,000 to hire a consultant to update the county’s zoning regulations. That person will be doing an audit of the current zoning regulations to see whether they align with the current and proposed land use maps.

“This is an investment of the public and for the public to realize the vision of our citizens,” she said.

One of the major changes will be a “Live/Work” zoning designation for East Missoula, which would allow people to operate businesses out of their homes or out of garages at their homes. The new designation was made at the behest of many in that community who don’t want to lose the entrepreneurial character of the area.

Lee Bridges, a 35-year resident of East Missoula who operates a shop on her property, applauded the move.

“I have been a staunch opponent of zoning for years,” she said. “I currently live in an unzoned area and all of you guys have been fabulous. Thanks to the hard work the county has done, they’ve been very creative and been very resourceful and have listened. We are very grateful. They’ve been willing to compromise and now we’re willing and eager to go forward with it.”

Bridges said she expects the City of Missoula to annex East Missoula in the coming years, so she’d rather have zoning designations that fit the community in place before that happens.

“You’re still going to have a fight, but you’re not going to have a zoning fight,” she explained. “Having lived 35 years out there, knowing the shop owners out there, those of us who have our own businesses in the cottage industries, if we were to be zoned residential or have the city overlay, those of us with shops would be grandfathered in. But you lose it if you sell your property. If it goes to an overlay, those of us with shops would lose the value of those shops.”

County Commissioner Josh Slotnick said people think “annexation” is a “dirty word,” so he hopes that with enough planning and public dialogue, people will be more accepting.

“We want to let people know what the factors are that come into play so it’s predictable and understandable,” he told Hagemeier, congratulating him for a well thought-out process. “I’d love to see it driven by planning and not development, but that’s just me. Our goal is to do the right thing. People are going to be mad, and it’s also going to make people happy, so go forth fearlessly.”

Hagemeier said that the Missoula Valley is geographically constrained by mountains and home prices here have already been rising faster than wages. Therefore, he said, high-density development like apartments and duplexes and multi-family housing needs to be given priority. He also said that planners are looking at incentivizing clustering of development.

“If you have 10 acres and develop part of it and use the rest for agriculture, we are looking at incentives for that,” he said. “If you do something to permanently protect the soils that we deem a resource, you can get an incentive or density bonus.”

He said the public input process showed that people value multi-modal transportation options, such as bike paths and pedestrian trails, and they are also concerned about vehicle traffic congestion.

The county is also concerned about water quality protection, so there could be an effort to require buffer zones for development near waterways and regulations in floodplains.

“This a good piece of work, and I look forward to it coming to fruition,” he said.

The Missoula County Planning Board meets at 7 p.m. on January 15 at 140 W. Pine Street in Missoula. The meeting will be taped by Missoula Community Access Television.

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