Missoula set to begin code reform to streamline growth, housing and commercial needs

Views of the Missoula Valley in the spring. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

Citing growth pressure and the city’s dire need for more housing, the Missoula City Council on Wednesday agreed to hire a consultant to help revamp the city’s wide range of codes and place them into a single comprehensive document.

The work will cover a sweeping range of policies, from subdivision to land use, and it will adhere to a number of plans including land use and housing. It will also align zoning with the growth policy, something that’s been an issue of discontent for years.

The work will take time to complete, though the payoff will have benefits across the community, Missoula Mayor John Engen said.

“Over the years, we’ve cobbled together code based on certain circumstances and reality on the ground,” said Engen. “In doing so, our regulations become complicated, and that complication leads to miscommunication and to us moving more slowly than we’d like. It leads to frustrations with neighbors who have expectations around predictability, and it creates problems for folks who build houses and also have expectations around predictability.”

The $850,000 contract with Metta Urban Design will be paid over two fiscal years and will glean best practices from other cities in the Mountain West that have successfully updated their own codes to address pressing needs and demographic changes.

Like many cities across the region – which is growing quickly – Missoula has fallen short on its housing inventory, which no longer meets current demand. The results have played a part in driving up home prices, which now carry a median price of more than $500,000.

“In this case quality, affordability, and neighborhood and community values aren’t exclusive to getting houses built faster with less complication and with more predictability,” Engen said. “That’s what code reform is about. We’ll steal it from communities that are doing it well. We’ll tailor those to challenges that may be unique to Missoula and, at the end of the process, we believe we’ll have the best working document.”

Code reform will help streamline the development process, making it more predictable and easier to achieve. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors and other industry experts, the city needs more than 650 new houses today just to bring the market back into balance. It will need a similar inventory year over year under current growth projections.

City planning also is facing challenges in keeping pace with growth – another issue Engen plans to address this budgeting cycle. As it stands, he said, the planning department is “swamped.”

“We’re not going to be able to hire as quickly as we’d like to take care of the more than 20 subdivisions that are going to come before (City Council) in relatively short order,” Engen said. “The level of expertise we get (in this contract) is extremely important. This is a document the city will own and implement.”

City planner Ben Brewer said Missoula’s current regulatory codes have not been adapted or modernized to meet the goals of the growth policy. The most recent zoning codes were established before the growth policy was even adopted.

The misalignment has led to frustrations among city planners, members of the planning board and the City Council, who have been left to consider a number of zoning requests for individual projects.

“Incremental updates over the years have led to a piecemeal approach, in some cases losing sight of broader visions,” Brewer said. “It’s become increasingly clear that a comprehensive review and modernization of the regulations is needed to achieve the city’s vision.”

The city transitioned from its 1970s-era Title 19 to the current Title 20 zoning code in 2009. Six years later, it adopted its new growth policy with a focus-inward vision. For various reasons, however, a zoning update never followed to reflect the goals within the growth policy.

Other plans followed as well including a parks and trails plans, a housing policy, an annexation strategy, a Downtown Master Plan, the Sxwtpqyen Master Plan, townhome exemption changes and a Long Range Transportation Plan.

Code reform looks to bring all plans, policies and codes into alignment and create a clear guide for future growth and development.

“While all these policies give a clear declaration of our values and goals, it doesn’t provide the tools for regulation and code that we need to achieve those goals and policies,” Brewer said. “Comprehensive code reform looks to do just that.”

The City Council has talked for years about the need for comprehensive code reform. With the process now set to begin, the contract with Metta Urban Design – along with a plan for community outreach – won universal support from council members.

“Land use and code reform will be critical in getting more housing on the ground,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “There is no magic way to get this done. We need to invest moving forward on code reform. I just wish we could make it happen faster. We’ve got to make it as easy as possible to get people into homes.”