County growth policy moving closer to final product

Spring Sunrise3
Nearly 140,000 people will call Missoula County home in the next 20 years, with nearly 75 percent of them living in Missoula or what’s now considered the urban fringe, according to a working draft of the county’s new growth policy. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Nearly 140,000 people will call Missoula County home within the next 20 years, with nearly 75 percent of them living in the city or what’s now considered the urban fringe, according to a working draft of the county’s new growth policy.

Commissioners joined members of planning staff on Monday in reviewing the draft policy, one that focuses on projections and needs over the next two decades. The document remains a work in progress, though commissioners expect to close in on a final product after a public hearing set for next month.

“This is probably the first major overhaul of the county growth policy since the original growth policy in 1970s,” said Karen Hughes, assistant director for Community and Planning Services. “It was overhauled quite a bit between the planning board’s first view and a more subsequent version in February.”

The process of writing a new growth policy kicked off in the fall of 2014 with the first round of public meetings. A second round of county-wide work sessions was held in the spring of 2015, followed by a final round last fall.

Hughes said the resulting input has been broad with several common themes. Communities across the county see themselves as unique and prefer some level of local control when it comes to planning and managing growth.

“They like to be noticed for their individual assets and needs,” said Hughes. “There’s some interest in more intensive planning and even zoning, but they really want it to be locally driven and not be part of a big county-wide initiative.”

Broken into nine chapters, the draft plan covers everything from subdivision review to use of the plan itself. It sets guiding principals, goals and objectives, recognizes climate change, calls for energy efficiency, and plans for access to publicly-owned waterways.

Members of the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board have also held two public hearings on the new policy and have recommended several changes. Among them, Hughes said, the board asked for improved information on climate change, renewable energy and housing.

“The planning board asked us to focus on housing and affordability, and to formulate more action on that,” said Hughes. “They also asked us to make stronger connections between trends and the action items.”

The county’s population in 2015 was estimated at 116,000 residents, making it the second most populated county. Its population density of 43 people per square mile is far above the state’s population density of 6.8 people per square mile.

The projected growth implications could impact water quality, food prices and the cost of housing in the years ahead, the plan notes.

“We should be expecting there will be different demands on housing,” said Hughes. “Affordability continues to be an issue. The economy is changing, so that presents some new opportunities, though there are also challenges out there, particularly in our rural areas.”

A public hearing has been scheduled for April 13.