With infrastructure bill, Missoula County reaffirms plans for Wye transformation
Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
More than a year ago, Missoula County identified the Wye as an ideal location for growth as the city expands to the west. But one problem persists – the lack of infrastructure.
The county this week reaffirmed its intention to seek federal funding to help lay the infrastructure needed to transform the Wye into something that more resembles an urban hub. With the new infrastructure bill passed into law, the opportunity may be closer than ever.
“The infrastructure package that came through the federal government is more focused on roads than on water, which is specifically what we need the most,” said Emily Brock, the county's director of land and economic development. “But the infrastructure plan will include the road network and the stormwater, which go hand in hand. It'll be everything.”
The county in February announced its plans to seek around $250,000 in funding to complete an infrastructure plan for the area, including public services like sewer and water, a proper street grid and other needs.
Without a plan – and the funding to implement it – county officials fear the area will develop on its own, squandering an opportunity for smart growth around a central node of commercial activity.
“We are very much hoping the federal funding will come through,” said Brock. “It's a county priority in our growth policy and our zoning to grow at the Wye. We know we need this infrastructure.”
The Wye was identified for its potential to accommodate urban-style development given its proximity to Interstate 90, the airport and Highway 93. Several subdivisions are already underway, though the area still retains large tracts of undeveloped land that could accommodate thousands of new homes and commercial opportunities if properly planned.
The roughly 1,800 acres included in the Mullan-area master plan will see around 6,000 new housing units come online. The Wye holds similar potential, the county said, but it lacks the infrastructure needed to accommodate that development and a plan guiding the process.
Brock said the county could also eye state funding.
“We think this is a really viable and palatable project for the state in the sense that there's nothing mushy about his project,” said Brock. “It's straight up sewer, water and roads, the stuff we need to grow. We think it would be very attractive to legislators on the other side of the aisle than our commission.”
The county in 2020 created a new Economic Development District for a small area south of the Wye to begin capturing tax increment to help fund infrastructure improvements in the area.
In creating the taxing new district, the county declared the area infrastructure deficient. But the district only covered a portion of the area, largely because other areas are still unzoned.
“It would accommodate a huge portion of the city and county's housing needs over the future. But those areas don't have any infrastructure right now to support any kind of development,” Andrew Hagemeier said recently.
“They're fairly large tracts of land that haven't been subdivided. But once subdivision starts to occur and you start chopping pieces of property up into 5- or 10-acre tracts, it becomes difficult to develop them in any cohesive manner in the future.”
The county also is hoping to see new development move to the former Smurfit Stone Contain Corp. pulp and paper mill at some point, though the process remains mired in Superfund proceedings.
The Frenchtown School District is interested in both the Smurfit site and the Wye and their potential growth, which could impact the student population while boosting the school's share of county taxes.
Commissioner Josh Slotnick said the county plans to meet with Frenchtown school officials.
“They're really interested in the potential for us to come chat with them about what's going to happen at the Wye. They also had questions on development at Smurfit,” Slotnick said. “One of the things we're going to look at (at the Wye) now that we have more industrial zoning out there, is expanding the tenants.”