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Population growth, development prompts changes to Missoula’s six election wards

In 2019 and 2020, Missoula saw 1,013 new housing units come online and 2,045 new residents. While that growth has been spread throughout the city, Ward 2 and Ward 5 have seen the bulk of the growth.

Saying several Missoula city wards are no longer aligned with their recommended population, the City Council this week took the first step in redrawing the boundaries of several voting districts.

Some voters in election Wards 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 will receive ballots from a new ward this year once the changes are approved. Those changes will affect an estimated 1,500 voters.

“Every 10 years, we do this with new Census data,” said Neil Pennanen, the city’s GIS analyst and planner. “But in interim years, boundaries are adjusted based on an estimated population.”

The city has adjusted its ward boundaries several times in recent years, including 2015, 2017 and again in 2019. The adjustments are based upon population estimates derived from new building permits.

Pennanen said permits submitted during 2019 and 2020 suggest that Wards 2 and 5 are now over the target population by 737 and 419 residents respectively. Wards 3 and Ward 4 are under the mark by 530 residents each.

Ward populations should range between 12,600 residents and 13,455 residents when divided by the city’s current population of around 78,400 people.

“After the Census numbers come out, we’ll have more of a solid idea the way the population is, rather than the system we’re using based upon building permits right now,” said Pennanen. “These are conservative changes. We’re at the end of the decadal process.”

In 2019 and 2020, Pennanen said the city saw 1,013 new housing units come online and 2,045 new residents. While that growth has been spread throughout the city, Ward 2 and Ward 5 have seen the bulk of the growth.

Ward 2 is largely comprised of the Grant Creek and Mullan areas, where several new subdivisions and multi-family housing projects are in progress or have already been completed. Ward 5 includes the South Hills, where housing development is also taking place.

With project growth west of Reserve Street, the city’s population will continue to expand into new areas, requiring future ward redistricting. Ward 2 has added an estimated 980 residents in the last two years while Ward 5 has added around 420.

“We will have Census data coming and then we’ll do a holistic look at this,” said City Council member Gwen Jones. “We know Ward 2 is going to expanding. There’s a lot of room for development there, and in Ward 5, there’s lots of subdivisions being phased in. We know we’re going to be growing in these areas.”

The proposed changes are subtle, pulling several city blocks into one ward and removing them from another. The changes must be approved before this year’s municipal election and before filing opens in April.

City Attorney Jim Nugent said the plus or minus 3% mark for the targeted population in each ward has been deemed acceptable by courts.

“It’s not an interpretation, it is the law,” Nugent said. “The old city charter says each ward shall be established and maintained by the City Council to be generally regular in shape and as equal in population as practically possible. The whole purpose is to ensure one person one vote uniformity throughout the city.”