Missoula County is embarking on an ambitious plan to throw out its old zoning code and replace it with one better reflecting the county's growth policy, which was adopted five years ago.
Beginning in 2019, the county hired an independent firm, Orion, to find and suggest solutions to issues facing the county as it grows. Following conversations with the city, county and other people in the community, the company presented its findings in an audit.
Following the release of the audit, county staff have been working for months to build a new set of zoning regulations, mostly from scratch. A new zoning map was also put together, which will establish which growth should go where.
The county is seeking public comment on the new zoning code, which seeks to address housing, the climate and protection of agricultural and wildland areas, among other issues. Current zoning regulations were adopted in 1976.
The area the county is focusing runs roughly from Bonner to Miller Creek and the Rattlesnake. It does not include anything within city limits, as that jurisdiction falls within the city of Missoula.
"So what people really wanted to see is this balance between growing where we want to grow, like this is where we want to grow, we're going all in here, but we're going to do things to manage and mitigate the impacts of growth in other areas. That's what the community wanted to see," said Missoula County Senior Planner Andrew Hagemeier.
"And what we did is develop these strategies and one of the strategies that came out of that was, we need to update our zoning regulations."
The zoning code is incentive-laden. One major issue with affordable housing development, Hagemeier said, is that the profit margin is larger on more expensive projects.
Density is a major goal. The county hopes to push developers with a points system. If developers reach a variety of sustainability, resource protection and other goals, they get development points.
If they build up enough points, they can scale up density further than what the code, as written, would allow for. There are other incentives, too — height bonuses, parking requirement reduction and larger building footprints.
County officials believe the updated zoning code will push developers to build more small, affordable units. The incentives will increase profit margins for developers on smaller projects and make them less risky, they said.
"Reducing that risk also allows for building developers of different scales," said Lindsey Romaniello, a county planner who is part of the zoning project. "So maybe you've got a smaller developer who can't take the same amount of risk (as a larger developer).
"This gives them more flexibility to actually get into the game."
County officials hope to make the administrative side of the zoning process easier for developers as well. When code was established in the 1970s, only two types of housing were included — apartment buildings and single-family homes.
That meant any developer looking to build duplexes, townhomes, and other types of housing are not specified in the code, making it a long process to build one. The new code has specific parameters for each type of housing, which Hagemeier said is a big deal.
"There's all these housing types in between (single-family homes and apartments) that the 1976 code didn't even speak to ... this isn't just a Missoula problem, it's an everywhere in the United States problem, but this is just how we thought about zoning in the 1970s, have neighborhoods of nothing by single family houses and neighborhoods of nothing but apartments," Hagemeier said.
"That's not a good strategy and we know now that it actually is contributing to our housing problems," he added.
The zoning code also seeks to push for mixed-use areas, where commercial and residential buildings coexist in close proximity, he said. By zoning these areas ahead of time, it saves on turnaround time for development.
Corner stores have nearly been zoned out of existence and the county wants outlying areas to feel like communities in and of themselves, Hagemeier said. By adding setbacks and buffers from wetlands and agricultural land, officials hope this will influence growth to develop responsibly.
There are also unique zoning areas, including one called Live/Make where entrepreneurs and artisans live on the same property creating things that would include aspects of light manufacturing and fabrication as well as commercial kitchens and art studios.
Commercial agriculture, like farm stands, event spaces and other aspects of agrotourism, are also included.
"There are locations we want to grow, where we have infrastructure to accommodate growth," Hagemeier said. "Places where there aren't wetlands or elk migration corridors, and it's those places where we're reducing barriers.
"In those other places where we have prime agricultural land, we have farmland we want to protect, we have wetland and wildlife habitat, we're putting in standards to mitigate the impacts of change on those resources."
Both Hagemeier and Romaniello cede there will likely be changes to the code following community feedback. The county is hosting open houses that will run through mid-August addressing questions and concerns.
They remain optimistic about the process and hope the zoning code will be voted on and approved this fall or winter. To see the audit as well as the proposed zoning map and code, go to mczoningupdate.com.
"This is all meant to reflect community vision," Romaniello said. "And we just hope we made it there."
Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Shout at him on Twitter @jordyhansen or send him an email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com