Missoula Insectarium

A southwest view of the proposed new facility.

"By a faction, I understand a number of citizens ... who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." — James Madison, Federalist 10

Something has been festering in the politics of Missoula city and county for some time now. But it rises to a head with news that the fairgrounds director, the Weed District and Extension Office, and the Missoula Insectarium organization, in cahoots with the county commission, want to spend $10 million on a state-of-the-art house for bugs and butterflies plus “experimental” gardens and food education and prep kitchens for kale-munching minions of locavore food production.

Funds for the fairground work come from existing mill levies collected from the entire county and pumped into a special district of dubious origin, created by the county commission. That special district includes no taxable property, only the fairgrounds itself. To say that the overall plan for the redevelopment of the fairgrounds is grandiose and somewhat ethically nefarious is an understatement. This latest scheme for tax spending comes on the heels of the notorious $5 million Reserve Street Bike/Ped “bridge to nowhere" and various other questionable uses of tax dollars, like city tax increment financing benefits for private developers, which starves the municipal general fund.

Recently, the county commission succumbed to special-interest (factions) pleas to facilitate $42 million in public bond funding for the new "regional" park at Fort Missoula as well as an additional $20 million to buy up land and secure development rights outside the city that could be used for development of much-needed affordable housing.

It is past time around here to take Madison’s warning about the effect of factions and demand that politicians take seriously their moral duty to govern for all. I charge you, politicians: before you approve them, investigate, comprehend and account for the impacts of special-interest projects on ordinary, working people and their problems and concerns. You are well aware of the real social crisis in this area, and it is not caused by any lack of land for kale and grass-fed beef production or open space and trails to hike and bike on.

Like it or not, the fundamental economic rules of supply and demand in housing development apply here in Missoula city and county. Practical reason dictates that we will need satellite communities around Missoula where affordable housing can be built. Not everyone wants to live crammed into the city of Missoula in micro-housing, cookie cutter apartments and densified, ruined formerly single-family zoning districts. It would be great if Frenchtown would incorporate and, working with owners of the Smurfit Stone site, develop a water system and sewer treatment plant for a new free standing municipality to counter the constant bullying from the city of Missoula.

Before another acre of land is committed to open space or fanciful bug pavilions, acres of “experimental gardens” and the like, the real problems of the community must be addressed. To provide some balance in the supply and demand formula that is driving housing costs, land must be available for affordable housing, probably with aid of public money. This is the essence of a land trust for housing. Housing could be built by private builders for profit and for sale or rent, but with the cost of the land mitigated by public ownership with a creative payback plan. That is a bond I would willingly vote for.

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Rocky Sehnert has experience as a public planner in Missoula and Hamilton. He spent four years as a contract officer at the Missoula Housing Authority.

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