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Missoula Annexation

DeSmet Public School Principal Matt Driessen stands on school property with two existing homes and the school behind him on Thursday. Driessen is concerned that zoning of undeveloped areas around the school included in Missoula's annexation will turn DeSmet into an island surrounded by industrial use, affect the health and safety of students, and prevent development of affordable housing.

The city of Missoula recently annexed more than 3,000 acres west of the city’s core, stretching city limits to now include the Missoula International Airport, Missoula Development Park, DeSmet School District and Canyon Creek Village.

The decision was made with broad support from property owners in the area, about 85 percent of whom signed petitions supporting annexation. Unfortunately, those petitions were required as a condition of gaining municipal sewer and water service, so the true level of support is somewhat harder to gauge.

Nevertheless, what’s done is done. The acres were officially annexed into the city last month, and now comes the difficult process of crafting a plan for the neighborhood’s future.

A plan is sorely needed in this particular neighborhood because there appears to be a deep divide between residential and industrial property owners, with the former arguing the area is ripe for affordable housing development and the latter responding that families should not be crowded next to busy trucking, manufacturing and other industrial facilities.

Both sides offer compelling arguments, and in the middle lies the fate of the independent DeSmet School district, which is experiencing dwindling enrollment even as nearby schools are bursting at the seams with students and planning expensive expansions. The city’s actions – or lack of action – over the next few years will determine whether this small school thrives or eventually withers away.

Some – such as the city’s Development Services Director, Mike Haynes – would point out that the school’s fate may actually have been sealed 20 years ago, when Missoula County established the development park that envelops DeSmet. The location is considered optimal for such business; it has little to no agricultural value and is conveniently located near an airport, railroad and interstate. The 446-acre development park itself was established for mixed use; the county website describes it as accommodating “hotel/conference centers, restaurants, convenience and specialty stores, gas stations, banks, research and development (technical training facilities and business and technology parks), warehouses and manufacturing, parks and trails and a housing development.”

It’s fair to say the development park has been a success, with businesses taking advantage of the opportunity to snap up relatively scarce land both suitable for industrial development and close to city services. It’s also clear the park has not been good for DeSmet.

The school currently counts about 110 students in grades K-8, mostly coming from the Canyon Creek Village subdivision and Hellgate district, according to Principal Matt Driessen, who has long advocated for affordable housing development close to the school. Driessen insists developers would pounce at the opportunity, if only they didn’t have a zoning hurdle to overcome first. Only about 10 percent of the entire school district is zoned for residential, he says.

The area immediately surrounding the school is zoned for light industrial, with a few parcels of open park space. As Haynes explained, light industrial zoning already allows up to 43 dwellings per acre, and it any property owners who desire more options for residential development are free to petition for a zoning change, a process that would take only about three or four months.

However, he added, industrial properties owners in that area have been quite clear in their communications with the city that they have no desire to change their zoning designation. About a year ago, one property owner did request a zoning change from light industrial – to commercial. Otherwise, the city hasn’t heard any clamoring for mixed uses from the people who own those properties.

Aside from DeSmet School, that is. The city’s annexation includes 20 acres of school property, including seven acres of residential, all zoned as light industrial. Driessen is worried this essentially spells doom for the school, which will eventually either need to move closer to its student base or close entirely. And, he argues, closing a school in an area of significant potential growth hardly makes sense. Neither does it make sense, he says, to make affordable housing development in Missoula any more difficult or expensive.

Former Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, speaking as a private citizen to the city council last month, anticipates that annexation will in fact make housing less affordable in that area. Not only will property owners pick up the additional burden of city taxes – boosting city coffers by about $1 million a year – they lose access to rural grants that help with housing access.

She also pointed out that the city lacks a plan for the area following annexation. City leaders might be content to simply maintain the plan put in place by the county. And that may very well be the best course of action – but not without a comprehensive community discussion first.

At that same city meeting, council member Jordan Hess, who represents the newly annexed area in Ward 2 along with fellow councilor Mirtha Becerra, noted that the annexation will allow the city to help guide growth in the area. Hess and Becerra would be the logical point people to lead this process, and last week, Becerra told the Missoulian they are actively reaching out to members of that community.

As they do so, they should make a point of asking business owners if they have any actual interest in developing housing on their property, and talk to residents about their specific hopes for DeSmet and their more general concerns regarding the larger neighborhood.

They should also invite these businesses and residents, along with municipal experts, to open meetings where they can discuss those hopes with one another and, hopefully, come to a mutually satisfactory agreement on the area’s immediate and long-term future.

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