Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) For several years now, members of the City Council and Consolidated Planning Board have lamented the fact that Missoula's new growth policy doesn't align with its older zoning and building codes.

The result has prompted delays in reviewing permits, created unpredictability among developers looking to begin a project, and frustrated residents at hearings over a zoning change.

But starting this week, the city will begin taking steps toward reform.

“We're looking to refresh the growth policy and modernize the key tools for carrying out that vision, which are the zoning and development codes,” said senior city planner Ben Brewer. “The ultimate product would be a unified development code.”

That final code would become something of a development bible, where the city's array of development codes – currently cast across a range of documents – are condensed into a single, simplified volume.

The result would streamline review, help builders know what the regulations are, and help bring assurance to residents.

“The current codes are not in sync and have been updated over time incrementally in a piecemeal approach,” Brewer said. “They got away from one another and that causes confusion and additional time in the development process and review.”

The city in July stated its intent to begin code reform to help ensure development meets city standards and is equally spread across all districts. Brewer said a number of city goals, including housing, equity and sustainability, will also be baked into the reform process.

But that could require balance. Some believe that the more mandates the city places on the building community, the more expensive the end product will become to the consumer.

“There usually is a balance there. That's one of the considerations we'll be trying to work through,” Brewer said. “Really, we're just getting going on this. We have adopted a fair amount of policy in recent years, and this is an opportunity to update our codes and align them to ensure they're based on the city's goals.”

Earlier this year, city officials said they've rarely had a conversation with a developer, contractor of staff member that didn't lead to a broader discussion on the need for code reform.

Eran Pehan, director of the city's planning department, said 'It's a challenge that will require us not to just look at regulations in code, but also to have careful and difficult conversations around the urgent needs that our community faces.”

The need for reform also played a role in this year's State of Missoula address, when former Mayor John Engen said the process would “make a huge difference in how housing gets building in Missoula.”

Members of the Consolidated Planning Board also have weighed in at times over the past few years when reviewing proposed subdivisions and zoning changes. In doing so, they've praised the Our Missoula Growth Policy for its scope and vision, but have said it remains unfinished given that a zoning update never followed.

Without that zoning update, the growth policy is little more than an incomplete vision of what Missoula should or could become. Spot zoning, often conducted in the moment around a single project, isn't good enough, they've said.

“The most important thing we can do with the growth policy in the city is actually implement it through zoning on the land,” former board member Neva Hassanein said during a controversial review last October. “The final step from moving it from vision to practice was never taken.”

Brewer agreed and said the reform process will address that and a wide range of issues.

“The growth policy will have a lave a large, robust conversation about what our values and visions are,” Brewer said. “There's a perception, certainly, that there are places in town that are experiencing the impacts of growth more than others. Part of this project will look at that, and intentionally make changes to the policy and growth policy map on how we manage growth.”

The Montana Legislature, which convenes next month, could also have an impact on local efforts toward code reform. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Gianforte convened a task force to review the state's building policies and regulations in an effort to address what most everyone agrees is a shortage of housing, both affordable and otherwise.

Already, the Legislature has banned inclusionary zoning, and it's likely it will implement other tools or regulations that could help or hinder local efforts to boost the city's housing stock, and address affordability in the process.

“It's something we follow closely and is something that could potentially impact this project,” Brewer said. “At the end of the day, we want development in Missoula that meets our policies to be as easy as possible.”

Brewer said the effort toward code reform will likely take place in six phases over the next few years. The effort kicks off in earnest on Tuesday night with a public forum at 6 p.m. in the Commercial Building at the Missoula County Fairgrounds.