“A solid piece of work:” Missoula County adopts land use map; ready for zoning

Establishing a land use map could give the county and area residents surety as growth occurs, and it could guide the strategic placement of infrastructure to areas identified by the map as suitable for development. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

With some final adjustments, Missoula County commissioners on Thursday adopted a land use map as an amendment to the larger growth policy, positioning zoning as the next step in the process of managing regional growth.

After a year’s worth of work, several public hearings and more than 100 comments, commissioners adopted the Missoula Area Land Use Element on a unanimous vote, calling it “a solid piece of work.”

“It really is the syntax and grammar for land use and the vision for this particular planning area of Missoula County that we’ve been grappling with for over a year,” said commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “I think this will be the foundation for zoning going forward.”

The effort stems back to 2016 when commissioners adopted a growth policy and identified the need for a new land-use strategy as a high priority. The area in the plan includes much of the Missoula Valley and locations facing the greatest pressure from development.

A number of areas received last-minute attention during Thursday’s hearing, including Highway 93 frontage near Blue Mountain Road, where commissioners approved a 9-acre lot for commercial development – a change from strictly residential.

Grass Valley also received attention and saw commissioners stick with the recommendations offered by planning staff. Doing so will hold residential density to one unit per 40 acres, down from one unit per five acres.

One member of the public described the designation as an infringement on private property rights and a devaluation of property, especially for ranchers and landowners looking to sell or subdivide in the coming years.

Commissioners, however, saw the designation as a compromise.

“This plan in general, especially for this area, addresses impacts – the impacts of development on agriculture,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “We blend in here a concern for existing entitlements, landowners’ expectations and what we feel we’ll need in the future in terms of ag land.”

Commissioners also considered the designation for Target Range after Peggy Morrison, a member of the homeowners association, expressed concern over language in the mapping document.

Morrison said the plan doesn’t adequately distinguish between one or two dwelling units per acre, among other things. She said such language “leaves things open to be determined” at a future date, something that worries area residents opposed to density of any kind.

County staff and commissioners, however, said the residents had nothing to fear.

“That would in theory and hypothetically allow for greater density zoning, but I don’t think it precludes what is in the neighborhood plan and what folks have been asking for,” Strohmaier said. “One of the things we’re trying to accomplish in updating our land use map is decreasing the number of specific land use designations.”

County planner Andrew Hagemeier said any future zoning change in Target Range and a dozen other neighborhoods would have to gel with a number of documents.

“The growth policy is a guiding document while the neighborhood plan provides more specific guidance,” he said. “What we’d do is look at that big picture, but also look at that neighborhood plan. Any zoning change would have to consistent with both documents.”

Focus also fell on the area surrounding DeSmet School. The surrounding land was defined as industrial in the original proposal but changed to mixed use. Commissioners changed it back to industrial on Thursday, saying land zoned as such in the valley is in short supply and greatly needed.

“We did the industrial lands survey and we don’t have much industrial space, and this was meant to be industrial for the last 20 years,” said Commissioner Rowley. “I don’t think now we should be changing it.”

Missoula County, Montana’s second largest with more than 118,000 residents – most of them living in the Missoula Valley – is projected to grow from 1 to 2 percent annually over the coming years.

Growth has moved the city limits west of Reserve Street, placing pressure on areas lacking in public services. Establishing a land use map could give the county and area residents surety as growth occurs and guide the strategic placement of infrastructure to areas identified by the map.

Commissioners said they were pleased by the input, collaboration and the map’s final result.

“Design creates the texture, the fabric and character of the world in which we move through,” said Slotnick. “We tend to speak about land development as one-per-how-many acres and think about density. That isn’t what we live. We live design. By emphasizing that, it provides the flexibility and opportunity to begin to create the Missoula County we really want.”