Ag discussions must grow before county adopts Target Range plan

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Preservation of open space and agricultural land in the Missoula Valley remains a heated issue.

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Implementation of a neighborhood plan for the Target Range area will have to wait until Missoula County makes good on an effort to bring stakeholders to the table and explore incentives to help preserve agriculture and open space.

In a meeting Monday with Community and Planning Services, commissioners also agreed that language in the county’s subdivision and zoning regulations should be clarified.

“I think there’s some value to waiting until the agricultural enhancement and enrichment discussions are complete,” said Commissioner Stacy Rye. “I’d want to go through that process in a public meeting.”

Last month, the county held a community forum with residents of Target Range, who are working to update and implement new zoning proposals for the large area of land west of South Reserve Street.

As presented by planning staff for commissioners’ approval, the plan would “downscale” zoning in some areas from one classification to another, and create two new zoning districts. It would also make language changes that allow for conservation design – or clustered development – in new housing projects.

“One of the items that still needs clarification or more explanation is this concept of conservation design,” said Lewis Yellow Robe, a member of the planning staff. “It’s the same thing as a cluster, it’s just got a different name. It would be voluntary for developers.”

Jamie Erbacher, a county planner, said the county’s subdivision and zoning regulations both allow for clustered development. But as written, she said, the language is confusing.

“Language in the subdivision regulations includes the same wording, but it doesn’t work for zoned areas,” she said. “It has a section for unzoned areas, and it describes setbacks for unzoned areas, which you don’t have in the subdivision regulations.”

Commissioners also agreed that incentives guiding the conservation of agricultural land and open space should be allowed to mature. Commissioners agreed to explore such options last month after passing a controversial agricultural policy.

“One of the things we’ll be working with developers on over the summer is what sort of incentives are actually valuable so they would want to try and cluster,” said Pat O’Herren, the county’s chief planning officer.

Yellow Robe said Target Range residents have been opposed to the term clustered development in the past. But they’ve warmed to the idea of conservation development, so long as it remains voluntary and not mandatory.

The idea of clustered development breaks away from traditional subdivisions in an effort to preserve open space by grouping homes. It could be a way to preserve agriculture and open space by not dedicating the entire property to sprawling ranchettes.

“How we protect agricultural land is such a big discussion in Missoula County right now, and I don’t see that what they’re proposing does that,” Commissioner Jean Curtiss said of the Target Range proposal. “I think it makes sense to have a conversation about how we at least get that into this.”

Rye also questioned the county’s practice of permitting special zoning districts. She asked staff to research how many special districts sat within the county’s urban planning area. The Target Range proposal has several, she noted.

“There are a gazillion little special districts,” Rye said. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily beneficial to have one special zoning district after another, versus having zoning and subdivision regulations that allow the flexibility and the incentives to get to what it is that we want.”

The county has scheduled a meeting for Tuesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. to discuss voluntary protection of agricultural land, such as incubator farms, conservation development and clustering incentives.