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Missoula embarks on code reform to improve consistency, predictability

Reform efforts are aimed at streamlining regulatory codes developed more than a decade ago and remain scattered across a number of sections, manuals and documents. The reform will result in clarity and consistency, which could bring predictability to the process. (Missoula Current file)

While it will take years to complete, the City of Missoula on Wednesday stated its intent to revamp its building and zoning codes, and compile far flung regulations into a single document that’s easy to follow.

Doing so, officials said, will modernize the city’s subdivision regulations, streamline the construction of housing across all incomes, and create dynamic neighborhood plans to ensure development meets city standards and is equally spread across districts.

“Rarely have I had a conversation with a resident, a developer, a contractor or a team member that hasn’t led to code reform,” said Eran Pehan, director of the Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation. “Missoula is growing, and the city is working hard to adapt to that change.”

While Wednesday’s presentation to the City Council was complex from the start, the expressed goal remains simple. The city is facing a housing crisis and no one is happy about it, regardless of their position in the spectrum of builders, buyers and property owners.

Bringing predictability and timeliness to the process is a good place to start, Pehan said.

“These conversations are happening at all levels,” she said. “I’m sure you’re aware of the conflicts within our code. It’s a challenge that will require us not to just look at regulations in code, but also to have careful and difficult conversations around the urgent needs that our community faces.”

The city earlier this year embarked on an effort to address its regulatory and review process by increasing development fees to better staff the Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation.

The 15% increase to fees is intended to help bolster city staffing to complete more timely permit review, including housing and commercial development, which currently takes months to complete. That, in turn, costs the developer risk and money and drives up the price of the end product, effecting the consumer.

Laval Means, the city’s planning manager, said the reform process will include shared design standards, amending development regulations, fully implementing the city’s housing policy and conducting a zoning audit, among other things.

It could include other actions like offering incentives to build affordable housing, reviewing parkland requirements, and aligning the city’s subdivision policies with new state laws passed by the Legislature.

“It includes the stated ability of state law to have an expedited subdivision review process,” said Means. “We want to get that on the books as soon as possible.”

City planner Ben Brewer said reforming the city’s codes could cover best practices from other cities, including the development of a unified development ordinance and expanding efforts to develop form based codes.

The later was completed for the first time in Missoula over a year-long process to guide future development in the greater Mullan area as part of a $19 million infrastructure plan.

“Form based codes are becoming more common and more popular,” Brewer said. “They serve as a course correction for the past century or so of typical zoning that has focused on uses.”

Eran Pehan, center, director of Missoula’s Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation will ask the city to fund the reform effort in next year’s budget. (Missoula Current file)

While the process may be wonky, the results could impact residents and businesses across the city. It could bring new housing types into traditional neighborhoods, change or align existing regulations, and shake up the city’s discussions around housing and sustainability.

But in the end, the goal is aimed at streamlining regulatory codes developed more than a decade ago and remain scattered across a number of sections, manuals and documents. The reform will result in clarity and consistency, which could bring predictability to the process.

“I have a feeling this is going to pay for itself, and the city won’t be the only one that gets reimbursed,” said council member Jordan Hess. “We’ve all experienced some of the frustrations around code. There’s a lot of opportunity here to really start with a clean slate with codes that are really tailored to the specific needs of our community.”

The Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation will request around $850,000 this budgeting cycle to fund the work in its FY 22 budget over two years.

While Pehan admits the project won’t come cheap, doing nothing will continue to hold Missoula back on a number of fronts.

“By taking the minimal or piecemeal approach, those goal posts will continue to move on us. We’ll make progress in one area and fall further behind in another,” she said. “Those conflicting codes will continue to create frustration, inefficiencies, and have real impacts on development review, which we know slows things down and increases costs to the eventual renter or homeowner, especially in a residential development.”