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How Missoula's land use decisions are structured

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During Thanksgiving, after broadcasting his vision for the redevelopment of the Missoulian property, a developer made reprehensible remarks on social media. The online comments were distressing and damaging to our community. They triggered a bigger discussion regarding housing costs in Missoula and preservation of Missoula’s character. Missoulians love Missoula and want it to be affordable and unique. But the communications council recently received revealed much misunderstanding about what council can and cannot do to influence the redevelopment of any property and address affordable housing.

The United States has an economic system based on capitalism and protection of private property rights; interference in those rights is illegal. Council cannot approve or deny the sale of private property, nor can it determine who will develop a property.

However, local government can control land use. After a full, standard rezone process requested by the property owner, Lee Enterprises, council approved a rezone of the Missoulian property on Oct. 4. The rezone made sense. Historically, the property was zoned with an industrial component because the Missoulian printing press operated in the building. Council approved the new zoning to a C1-4 Neighborhood Commercial designation to bring it into alignment with the rest of the Hip Strip. Under Montana Code Annotated Section 76-2-304, the factors council must take into consideration on a rezone application include our Growth Policy and the surrounding zoning. With the rezone, council adopted the Growth Policy zoning recommendation for this area, and the new zoning now matches the zoning on the rest of the Hip Strip.

Under Montana state law, we cannot condition rezones — in other words, we cannot approve a rezone based on a building design or the individual developer. To be clear, council did not vote on a development. When privately owned property is being sold to another private owner, council lacks the legal authority to control the development.

As for design, the only tool we have to dictate design is our Design Excellence Overlay, which this property is subject to and must comply with. The Overlay aims to create a pedestrian friendly streetscape on our major commercial corridors by encouraging good design through more windows, height scaling and architectural details.

The plan must also conform to all state and city regulations. A plan submitted to city administration that is compliant with zoning parameters and regulations is not reviewed by council, it is an administrative review. If it complies, there is no discretion to deny it.

Nonetheless, council continues to work on implementing our Housing Policy, and our Affordable Housing Trust Fund. An example of the results these policies can create is the Scott Street development, where the city purchased and banked the land for affordable housing development. We were able to construct terms for the development only because the city owned the land and was a party in the transaction.

We encourage everyone to read the policy documents pertaining to historic districts, design excellence and the growth policy, as well as our housing policy, to understand these foundations. Your local government is using the tools we have to make Missoula livable and affordable. We have no legal power to demand an affordable housing component. To do more for affordable housing, we need federal and state support. And that is the next conversation for our community to have.

Signed:

Bryan von Lossberg, Ward 1 City Councilor, President of Council

Gwen Jones, Ward 3 City Councilor, Vice-President of Council

Stacie Anderson, Ward 5 City Councilor

Mirtha Becerra, Ward 2 City Councilor

Amber Sherrill, Ward 4 City Councilor

Jordan Hess, Ward 2 City Councilor

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