County nears finish line on first round of zoning amendments

The Missoula Valley looking south over the Bitterroot River. Missoula County is streamlining its zoning regulations to create more predictability and increase opportunity for developers. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Frustrated by outdated and conflicting policies, Missoula County is streamlining its zoning regulations to create more predictability and increase opportunity for developers.

While the revised policies don’t expand zoning into new areas of the county, they do provide more opportunities to build affordable housing, and they look to extend commercial development into new areas of the zoning district.

Jennie Dixon, a senior planner with the county’s Community and Planning Services, said the updates address both housekeeping needs and capital changes, including pyramidal zoning, hillside design standards and accessory structures.

In simple terms, she said, the process will replace the “red tape” with common sense updates.

“This is the first step, and it’s the minimum you have to do to make us legal, functional, reliable and consistent,” said Dixon. “If you pick up our zoning regulations, you want to be able to rely on it, but you can’t. That’s what the housekeeping is all about.”

The revisions also address six primary areas, including pyramidal zoning. Current regulations are rigid, Dixon said, prohibiting residential, commercial and industrial uses from mixing. That limits new housing projects to certain areas, as well as commercial and industrial development.

But Dixon said the changes will allow a blend of uses over a wider area of the district. The results are expected to incentivize new projects by giving developers more flexibility and predictability.

“We’re going to blend those a little bit so there’s more opportunity, particularly economic opportunity to put commercial in industrial zones,” said Dixon. “By doing the shift, it will allow commercial uses to expand. It’s been exciting to see what’s going on in the city, and we want that same opportunity in the county.”

The changes could also address affordable housing by clarifying the county’s land use policy. The changes have won the support of several area developers, who believe they will provide greater flexibility for multi-use projects.

Lori Davidson, executive director of the Missoula Housing Authority, also supports the updated regulations, saying the zoning changes allow wider uses over a greater area while also streamlining the process for responsible development.

“One of the biggest barriers we face is finding available land zoned for housing,” Davidson said. “The proposed amendments will allow homes, jobs and services to be in close proximity, creating a sense of community and reducing auto dependency.”

Roughly 6 percent of land in Missoula County is zoned, and no new areas are proposed for zoning under the amendments. The remaining 94 percent of the county is not regulated by zoning and will remain unaffected by the changes.

As written, the changes primarily address the Missoula metro area, including areas of the valley outside the city limits. Dixon said the changes consider future city growth and would make future annexation easier.

“We relied heavily on Missoula city regulations, especially in that fringe area, so if and when they’re annexed, the rules don’t change drastically on them,” Dixon said. “There are some tweaks we make where county and city culture is different, but for the most part, it’s an important piece to this.”

Supporters of the amended regulations also believe they strike a balance between economic opportunity and protecting the valley’s agricultural heritage. Balancing the two have been a hot issue over the past year.

“With the recent uptick in subdivision applications and proposals, we need good zoning in place that reflects our community’s values and needs,” said Bonnie Buckingham, executive director of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.

“Both the newly adopted city and county growth policies emphasize Missoula’s desire to keep and enhance our agricultural opportunities, and modifying the zoning code will help accommodate those priorities.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com