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Regulatory study seeks ways to streamline development, affordable housing in Missoula

The 22 recommendations provided in the draft range from programs and policy to administrative changes. A significant portion also focus on streamlining the development process while still ensuring community input. (Missoula Current file photo)

After a roughly six-month study, Design Workshop in collaboration with the City of Missoula presented a series of recommendations this week designed to make housing more affordable in Missoula through a streamlined process.

The recommendations range from the long-term to the immediate on subdivision policies that haven’t been updated for more than a decade, and townhome policies that were updated last year.

“We’ve been able to discover things that I don’t think we would have done if we just said: ‘OK, now’s the time. Review your subdivision regulations and update them,’” said Laval Means, manager of Planning Services Manager. “Here we really had an opportunity to do that deeper dive and collect a lot of great insights through many different processes and evaluations. It’s going to really enrich how we can improve our processes.”

Part of that 6-month deeper dive was devoted to community outreach and surveys. Jessica Garrow of Design Workshop said community engagement was a valuable part of the process.

Through their local 120-person survey, top issues included affordable housing, aligning development with policy documents and deigning housing consistent with community values.

The 22 recommendations provided in the draft document range from programs and policy, administrative changes and code and state law. A significant portion of the recommendations focus on streamlining the development process, while still ensuring community input.

“A longer process means they incur additional holding costs, holding costs that are passed onto future homeowners,” Garrow told members of the Consolidated Planning Board this week. “When development needs to rework things there’s additional costs associated with that and again could be passed on to the homeowner. Some developers indicated concern that they are not able to offer creative solutions on some of these issues.”

One recommendation to encourage a mixture of development in Missoula is creating an incentive-based approach on affordable housing for developers. According to the document, this could mean deferral of impact fees, waiving of permit fees, expedited review, reduced street infrastructure and reduced parking requirements.

Other recommendations included more flexibility in the regulatory process to encourage creative land use by developers. One such change would consider the full size of a property and give it those density requirements when only part of the property could be used due to environmental concerns, steep slopes or other restrictions.

Planning Board member Shane Morrissey called the recommendation a “win-win.”

“The community gets to protect those spaces that they deem to be protectable, and the developer gets to develop the allotted number of units per the zoning recommendation. It makes a lot of sense to me,” Morrissey said.

The recommendations also include putting together a City project review board creating room for a single person to consistently represent a project. It’s to help address an overburdened staff, and would likely bring staff increases to the Development Services Department, something that is recommended immediately to address an “overworked,” staff according to Garrow.

Planning Board member Dave Loomis said the city historically falls behind on developments, but they’ve been doing great with what they’ve been given.

“Many of the complaints historically and even present have to do with adequate staff. I think the staff is there. It’s working really hard on doing well, and I think the expectations on what staff can do now are too high given what the department has been given by the City Council.”

The recommendations also propose requiring the attendance of key agencies at pre-planning meetings.

Planning Board member Andy Mefford called the administrative recommendations a needed improvement.

“We go on for weeks sometimes trying to figure out who’s on first or where the plan is at or if it was received or lost in the shuffle. So that’s a lot of lost time and frustration,” said Mefford, owner of Professional Consultants Inc. “Getting those stakeholders at a meeting and then having some kind of a documented process, so you know where you are, would be a really good step.”

The recommended draft is currently facing revisions and will be discussed by the City Council at the Land Use and Planning Committee on Nov. 18. Council members took issue with the perceived flaws when discussing the proposal in May and said the project came off as skewed towards developers.