County ready to adopt final growth plan

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Missoula County commissioners moved one step closer Wednesday to adopting a final growth plan that will help guide policy decisions over the next two decades as they relate to climate change and the economy, and everything in between.

After discussing any last-minute changes at Wednesday’s final public hearing, commissioners unanimously agreed to send the document on for formal adoption. By and large, the commissioners and the public were satisfied with the policy, which represents nearly 18 months of work.

“It seems like a concept plan we can follow,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “I think it’s well written, interesting and informative.”

The process of writing the 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.

Karen Hughes, assistant director of Community and Planning Services, said the input received from county residents struck on several common themes as they related to the broader categories of communities, livelihoods and landscapes.

“It’s a living document,” Hughes said of the plan. “We review it every year and provide a progress report to the commissioners. They can ask for an update at any time.”

The plan covers everything from subdivision review to use of the plan itself. It calls for energy efficiency and directs county leaders to develop a buy-local program for county government. It seeks to protect public access and local waterways, and gives a nod to climate change.

Gary Matson made a last-minute effort Wednesday to lobby for additional language regarding climate change. He urged commissioners to include language that directs private developers to do their part in addressing the region’s changing climate.

“It’s very clear we cannot continue on the course we’re on now with fossil fuels, and we must make provisions,” Matson said. “It’s not clear to me what the county can do to encourage that kind of development. It really depends upon incentives and the initiative of the private sector.”

Commissioners didn’t include Matson’s recommendations on Wednesday, though they do plan to revisit several areas – including climate change – when more information is at hand. As it stands, the plan sets several objectives addressing climate change with actions described as both immediate and long-term.

The county will include performance indicators to measure its progress when specific action items come up.

“We just felt it made more sense as we took on the action items that we design the performance indicators then, because you establish a baseline for what’s gong on at that time,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “Some action items might not be something we take on for a couple of years. Others are immediate and ongoing.”

Commissioners agreed that the new policy represents a market improvement over the original policy, which was created in response to a 2001 legislative initiative directing counties to adopt such plans.

“It’s hard to do a county-wide growth policy, because each community is so diverse and they need different things,” said Rowley. “You can say it’s an ambiguous document, because it is. It’s finding that balance in what we can go after but be vague enough for communities to work with it.”