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Missoula County zeroes in on new zoning codes after 50 years

Missoula County moved closer to adopting a long-anticipated update to its zoning codes and zoning map, marking the first time since the 1970s the documents have been modernized. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Calling it the most significant land-use decision to come before the county in half a century, Missoula County commissioners on Thursday signaled their intent to adopt a new zoning code and map to direct a new era of growth and development.

The zoning code update and zoning map marks years of work and, if adopted in a final vote next month, it would replace zoning for the greater Missoula Valley implemented back in 1976.

“There’s a definite need to bring our zoning code into alignment with our current strategies for our growth management, and to bring it much more in line with current planning practice,” said county planner Andrew Hagemeier. “The planning profession has clearly evolved over the last 50 years.”

The new zoning codes and map continue the county’s 2016 growth policy and the 2019 land-use element. Both set a lofty vision for how and where the county should grow, though they both lack the regulatory teeth to see that vision through.

The zoning codes put the county’s vision into motion.

“Zoning is a tool to implement adopted policy,” said Hagemeier. “Growth policies don’t have any authority to regulate. The zoning is the regulation that implements the growth policy.”

Despite some minor concerns, the new zoning codes won praise from both the public and commissioners on Thursday. Among other things, the codes bring some form of predictability to land use and growth across the greater Missoula Valley.

It also goes farther to protect natural resources with stream-side setbacks and riparian protections. Wildlife habitat is acknowledged, along with agriculture. Hillside and ridgeline development also are addressed, as are incentives for using renewable energy in development.

“There’s a wide variety of environmental protections in the code,” said county planner Jennie Dixon.

The Wye has been identified as an area suited for urban style development. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

But the new code’s biggest achievement may be in the area of housing. The zoning map identifies areas targeted for urban-style growth such as the Wye, and it identifies future centers of commerce to support new neighborhoods.

“The proposed code isn’t going to solve our housing crisis, but it does give us more tools in our tool belt to address it,” said Hagemeier. “It helps diversify our housing stock and has ways to leverage private dollars to get deed restricted affordable housing.”

To free up the construction of housing, Chapter Nine of the zoning code details the range of incentives and bonuses offered to builders. Incentives cover a range of goals including connectivity, energy efficiency, solar energy, electric vehicle charging, affordable housing and traffic mitigation.

If a development team pursues the list of incentives, it could receive bonuses that include increased density or building heights, decreased setbacks or parking requirements, or increased building footprints.

It also offers opportunities for townhome exemptions and clustered development, along with cottage courts and tiny homes.

“With the incentives, we’re trying to encourage our community members to look at doing what we’d like to see in development, but they’re not requirements,” Dixon said. “But in exchange for doing these incentives, you would be assigned points, and you could use those points to get a bonus. There’s been a lot of interest in this.”

Commissioners joined members of the public in praising the zoning update for its vision and modernity and adopted a resolution of intent to approve the new document, which marks “the culmination of years and years of work.”

When the county is asked what it’s doing to address housing, Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said the new zoning codes will provide the answer.

“This isn’t the silver bullet, but it’s a big deal,” Strohmaier said. “It sets the context for creating our own destiny here in Missoula County and achieving the vision we’ve set out in our growth policy documents. It creates some real mechanisms at the regulatory level to address the housing challenges that we face.”