By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Plans by Costco to build a new superstore on West Broadway outside the city limits earlier this year shed light on a certain reality – Missoula is growing and the airport is likely in the crosshairs.
How that growth takes place could hold implications for future development, along with the cost borne by taxpayers to provide essential services.
Faced with that new reality, city officials have begun looking at annexing tracts of land west of the city line, starting with Missoula International Airport. The talks have been going on for several months, though they’re expected to gain momentum over the coming weeks.
Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the discussion is becoming urgent.
“We have four active developments going on at the edge of the city limits connecting to sewer, one of them being Costco,” Bickell said. “We were concerned about the potential for greenfield development, and we wanted to make sure the city had a say in what was going on. The airport is essentially right there.”
Costco has since dropped its plans to build on West Broadway, though it’s now looking at property off Expressway Boulevard near Missoula International Airport in the county’s development park.
Several other developments are still slated for West Broadway, beginning what city officials see as a box-store boom extending toward – and eventually beyond – the airport.
“We’re going to talk with the airport on what annexation means related to the services they get now versus what services they’d get if annexed into the city,” Bickell said. “The thing we want to understand is fire protection. The airport has its own firefighters for certain things, and there’s an aspect of mutual aid we need to discuss.”
Cris Jensen, director of Missoula International Airport, joined other airport officials in a meeting Tuesday with Missoula County commissioners. Jensen said the airport is meeting with the city next week.
“It’s a little complicated for us, because there’s a lot of questions as to how annexation would affect us going forward,” Jensen said. “The city has verbally told us that they’re intending to have that conversation with us.”
Lynn Fagen, the airport’s administrative manager, said the county created the Missoula County Airport Authority in 1980. That resolution was amended in 1985, with the airport authority giving consent to future annexation.
“It’s not all of our land, but the bulk of where our facilities are,” Fagen said. “The authority agreed to consent to annexation of that portion of the airport upon which our facilities are connected to the city sewer system.”
While airport officials didn’t voice opposition to annexation during Tuesday’s discussion, they did ask further questions that will likely be answered over the coming weeks.
The airport sits within a tax increment district created by the county, and that doesn’t sunset until next summer. The airport authority also operates independently, and Jensen looks to keep it that way, regardless of whose land the airport sits on.
“We believe the most effective way to operate the airport is an independently focused authority with an independent board that’s focused on the airport,” Jensen said. “It has served us well. We haven’t seen anything at this point that says city annexation is going to change anything. It’s just not clear to us yet.”
Bickell said the city has no intention of taking over operations of the airport. Rather, he said, it’s looking to annex the property to guide growth and development as it expands beyond the city’s core.
“Our only intention is annexation,” Bickell said. “There isn’t any discussions about having an airport as part of the city government. We’re talking about the airport property specifically. We’ve actually been having those internal discussions for quite a few months now.”
Bickell said it’s also time for the city to develop a new annexation policy.
“We need to develop an idea and strategy of what we intend to do and why, especially with the way development is going right now,” Bickell said. “Any of that development is connected, and it’s going to have an impact on city services. We’re trying to see that our standards are met and done correctly.”
Jensen said next week’s meeting with the city will answer many of his questions.
“My belief, based on conversations with city staff, is that they’re working their way toward the Wye,” Jensen said. “Obviously the airport, with 2,500 acres of land, gets them a big step in that direction. That’s just my personal belief based upon what I’ve heard.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org