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EAST MISSOULA — Welcome to the changing face of East Missoula, Est. 1909.

That’s not exactly what the new sign says in greeting travelers from the west. But after navigating a labyrinth of red tape — which seems almost laughable now — to put the welcome sign in place, the community council is not about to change it.

Construction workers are an everyday November sight here, clad alternately in T-shirts, as some were Friday morning, and double layers at other times in a race with winter.

Three housing projects on either side of Highway 200 are in the works, promising more new townhouses, apartments and condominiums. They’ll add some 80 living units to what Al Zepeda, developer of two of them, calls the gateway to East Missoula. Zepeda’s East Village complex already consists of three apartment buildings that added 81 units in the past three years.

In the air is talk of hobbit houses in the side of Mount Jumbo, a Forest Service lookout-style home between them, and a possible brewery at the westbound I-90 on-ramp.

This deep-blue-collar bedroom community of Missoula is fading at the collar and getting a lot more bedrooms.

“People are starting to look at East Missoula,” said Wade Hoyt, who sees his 14-unit condo project on the old Sun Motel site as an opportunity to provide housing close to Missoula for under $190,000. “It’s some of the most available property around right now without being $100,000 an acre.”

“I think it’s a fantastic place to develop,” Zepeda said. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in East Missoula until I bought land and came out and started building. This is such a beautiful spot. It’s got a real good energy that I really like. “

The welcome sign was installed last month after a year’s trying. Among the regulatory complications: It has one foot on highway right-of-way and one on Jim Moss’ barbershop land. Even those who installed it aren’t sure what exactly it is they’re welcoming travelers to.

The spate of building projects is “all the more reason to get a land-growth policy in place so we can avoid uncontrolled growth,” said Lee Bridges, who on the last two Tuesdays lost in her bid to unseat Republican Mike Hopkins to represent House District 92 and was handed a figurative gavel to chair the East Missoula Community Council.

“East Missoula is such a mixed bag,” said Dick Ainsworth, who handed over that gavel.

A retired surveyor and land-use planner and a major property owner in this unincorporated town. Ainsworth has worked with Missoula County on an array of issues since the advisory council was formed in 2007.

Things have improved since Missoula sewer reached East Missoula in the early 2000s, Ainsworth said. “But a lot of it's still really blighted. You drive down any of these streets and there’ll be two or three places just neat as a pin, with yards in perfect shape, then there'll be two junkyards or a trailer house that doesn’t look like it’s had anything done to it in 50 years.”

East Missoula’s population was 2,157 in the 2010 census, an increase by fewer than 100 people from 2000. But her sense tells Bridges it has jumped 50 percent since the sewer came in. Multi-housing units like East Village and Hidden Trail spring up at the base of Mount Jumbo and the sewer district makes backyard “mother-in-law” homes and apartments legal and lucrative.

Outgoing county Commissioner Jean Curtiss was at Tuesday's community council meeting, on a farewell tour of the county’s seven community councils. She swore in three new members and helped council members tick off a list of recent improvements the town has seen to go along with the building boom.

There's a refurbished and safer playground at East Missoula Lions Club Park, a new-look fire station where the community council meets, and a $188,000 federal grant to the fire department that she said makes it a training ground for firefighters from around the state.

Council members pointed out the success of the River of Life Church at the far end of town that fills its parking lot to overflowing each Saturday evening and Sunday morning, and the Aspen Motel that has benefited from the opening of the KettleHouse Amphitheater in Bonner two summers ago.

The night’s agenda included presentations by experts from the county on potential brownfield assessment grants as well as the draft version of East Missoula’s slice of the county land-use map.

Bridges, who's been on the sewer district board since it was formed, has played a lead role in developing the county’s plans for East Missoula. Andrew Hagemeier of the Community and Planning Services reviewed the draft form and remarked on one particular area of the land-use map.

The unzoned part of town, which is the lion’s share, is the color of purple. Shops and businesses like hers are scattered throughout, Bridges said. The purple means it’s targeted for a “live-make neighborhood” in the county's growth plan.

That's not a unique zoning designation. “But in the planning world it’s very progressive,” Hagemeier said.

And it fits East Missoula’s needs and character, Bridges said.

“If we got zoned residential, anybody with a shop trying to do anything … you’re not allowed to have a home-based cottage industry or manufacturing. You can’t have that shop on the same site as your home,” she said.

Ainsworth and Bridges feel an urgency to get the county zoning plan locked in. In the early 2000s, the city of Missoula made an offer to East Missoulians. If they’d approve the bond funding, the city would extend its sewer line out here and promise not to use it to force annexation until 2019. That was negotiated back to the end of 2023, when residents will be done paying off the bond.

That's only five years away now, Bridges said. As much time as county planners have already spent meeting with and listening to the community, it's going to take much more to solidify the countywide growth plan and put zoning into place. 

"I don't know what Missoula has in store for us for zoning," Bridges said. "Frankly I'd like to work with the county. They're listening to us and I think they've got a feel for what we want." 

***

Zepeda is known best as the creator and co-owner of Lolo Peak Brewery in Lolo, where he lives. His next project will be back there in the spring, a development across from the brewery in a vacant gravel pit that he plans to fill with a couple hundred units of apartments, homes and some businesses, he said this week.

But he’s fairly hopping to get going on the final touches to his East Missoula construction.

“We’ve got three projects at the gateway that are literally transforming East Missoula,” Zepeda said.

A 45-unit townhouse addition to East Village has been rising over the past few weeks, and Zepeda oversaw paving of Sun Pillar Loop up to it late last week.

On the hill above that, things will get funky.

If Mother Nature allows, Fallen Tree Construction and Zepeda Homes Inc., will start this fall on a nine-unit project that includes the two hobbit homes, dug into the side of Mount Jumbo. One will be one-story high, the other one two.

“They’re as cool as they sound,” Zepeda said. 

He's been wanting to build an earth-sheltered home for a long time, he added. "So what better opportunity than right here?”

The hobbit homes will flank what looks like a Forest Service lookout that’ll rise above East Missoula with a garage below two levels of living quarters.

“I used to be a sawyer on the Bitterroot Hot Shot crew, so a lookout was just kind of always in my blood, and the site just kind of lended itself to that style,” Zepeda said.

"I used to do the same buildings everybody else was doing. I finally said, 'You know what, I don't need to build big stuff.' I just need to build small, cool stuff, so this is a great spot to do that." 

Another crew is working across an increasingly busy Highway 200, not far from the "Welcome to East Missoula" sign and barbershop. They’re building a 15-unit apartment complex that Zepeda said will have the same exterior feel and look as East Village.

Behind that, near the I-90 westbound off-ramp, he's planning four triangular homes, each two levels high with hot tubs, a sink and barbecue area on the rooftop, and each with a footprint of just 400 square feet.

“They’re going to be the first thing you see when you’re coming into Missoula (from the east) and you’re going to go, ‘That is so cool,’" Zepeda said.

Back on the mountain side, close to the westbound on-ramp, heavy equipment is parked on an otherwise empty lot. When Zepeda bought it from Kevin Pfau's Liquid Assets, he moved a large commercial shop that sat there to Lolo.

Now, he said, it’s a prime spot for a brewery. 

“I think East Missoula needs something like that, much like Lolo needed the brewery there,” Zepeda said.

Still, a final decision to build a brewery hasn’t been made.

“I have the building fully designed and we’re in the permit process,” he said. “What we’re lacking right now is whether we want to do a second location or whether I build it and put it on the market. I’m also tentatively exploring the idea of doing a condo project there.”

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