DeSmet School worries airport annexation, zoning could choke it out of existence

The city of Missoula plans to annex 3,200 acres, including Missoula International Airport and nearby housing and commercial developments. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As the city of Missoula steadily works its way toward annexing the airport area, tiny DeSmet School sees this as the last chance to correct zoning imposed on it two decades ago.

On Wednesday, the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee voted to send to a Dec. 10 public meeting the city’s zoning proposals for annexation of the airport, the nearby Missoula Industrial Park and Canyon Creek Village.

Development Services director Mike Haynes marched committee members through a few of the zoning changes, but said most of the zoning would remain as it was when the 3,227 acres belonged to the county. Haynes said that was the result of comments from an informational open house.

The biggest change was listing the airport property as an aviation district – signified as “A” – which would work better than an open-space kind of zoning because it allowed for certain airport operations.

But the change that most bothered some residents was designating the Missoula Industrial Park neighborhood north of the airport and Highway 10 as “limited industrial-residential” – known as M1-R.

Most of the property owners there run industrial businesses, and they asked that no residential development be allowed. They said don’t want to worry about security for open storage areas or liability due to heavy truck traffic, Haynes said.

But that’s a problem for DeSmet School, said DeSmet principal Matthew Dreissen. Just as industrial businesses might not want houses near them, students’ parents don’t want industrial businesses right at the doorway of the school, Dreissen said.

Built in 1890 as a rural school originally catering to students as far away as Evaro, the DeSmet School was slowly surrounded by industrial businesses as Missoula expanded west. That was compounded in 1998 when Missoula County included the area as a tax-increment district with a focus on business development.

Just as he has for two years, Dreissen argued for allowing the possibility for residential development in the area around the school, not only for the safety of the 110 students but also to provide middle-income housing and possibly a few more students. He asked the committee to set that area aside so the zoning could be discussed in a public meeting.

“You have a fiduciary duty to protect our schools – residential zoning is part of that,” Dreissen said. “We’ve been under severe restraints for the last 20 years. This is an opportunity to address and correct.”

State Rep. Adam Hertz also made a plea for holding off on a decision about the area around the school. He said the evolution of the area meant the city was looking at two options, neither of which was optimal, but the school should get the same consideration as businesses.

“Neither choice is particularly good planning but it’s very poor planning to have industrical surrounding a school district,” Hertz said. “If you adopt this zoning as is, you’re signing DeSmet’s death warrant. Even if they don’t get more housing, you’re surrounding a school with industrial development. They’re going to be choked out.”

Councilman John DiBari appeared impatient as he pointed out that the committee was only considering whether to recommend the zoning proposal for a public meeting, not how to rezone 20 out of the 3,227 acres being annexed.

“This is such a small slice of the annexation and probably an even smaller slice of their district. While I totally appreciate the situation the school district is in, it seems unreasonable and somewhat unfair for this to be the solution to the problem that they’re trying to solve,” DiBari said.

However, some council members said the zoning around the school deserves more attention at the Dec. 10 meeting.

Councilman Jordan Hess said the annexation was a good action for the city to take to help with planning on the western side of Missoula, but maybe some nuance was needed in the case of DeSmet.

“Zoning does not reduce what landowners are allowed to do,” Hess said. “I think we need to canvas these property owners and evaluate the appropriateness of M1-R in this area. I’m not convinced we’ve struck the right balance.”