Members of the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board are asking the city to make urban zoning a priority to help implement the vision of the city's newly adopted growth policy.

Planning Board member Niva Hassanein made the request to the City Council's Land Use and Planning Committee this week, kicking off what's expected to be a lengthy and potentially controversial discussion.

“What the planning board would like for you to consider is dedicating some staffing resources to a rezoning effort that would help us move toward matching what's in the zoning with what's envisioned in the growth policy,” she said. “We're proposing that City Council ask Development Services to prioritize zoning in the urban area.”

Hassanein said the Planning Board has been working on several issues related to the new growth policy. Along the way, the effort prompted a larger discussion among the board regarding zoning across the city.

While the Planning Board remains optimistic about the vision adopted in the growth policy, outside issues could make it hard to implement the plan without rezoning certain districts, and getting the resources needed to carry it out in a timely manner.

“We've passed this great visionary document for the city, yet the zoning in the city is still done on an ad hoc basis,” Hassanein said. “It ends up pitting neighbor against neighbor. It seems problematic to us that zoning is done on such an ad hoc basis.”

Last year, the city adopted its new growth policy after conducting 70 presentations, listening sessions and public meetings. The 341-page document sets out the community's vision for growth over the next two decades and includes an inward focus as opposed to urban sprawl.

In approving its request to the City Council, the Planning Board noted that Development Services employs just three full-time planners who are already busy. The board also believes the city is now facing a new wave of growth and development and needs to get ahead of it.

“The character of the city is changing, and this is a time in our planning where a lack of action can have a powerful effect on the shape of Missoula,” Hassanein said. “We really feel there's a need to take a look at the growth policy map and Missoula's existing zoning and identify those areas where we need to start working away on rezoning. It seems to us a high priority.”

Mike Haynes, director of Development Services, said his office had already submitted its budget for the next fiscal year and it doesn't include a request for additional staff. If the council were to add funding for new staffers, Haynes said, his office could prioritize rezoning.

“It's a large city, and if we embarked on this effort, we'd have to break this off into smaller parts,” Haynes said. “We can't do a large scale, top-down rezoning without a lot of discussion and a lot of debate. Our preference would be a neighborhood planning process.”

Haynes said rezoning efforts could aggravate some community members who are reluctant to see new neighborhood uses or efforts to alter the character of their immediate surroundings. At the same time, he said, zoning could provide assurances and boost property values.

“The way to move forward would be to look at the city and look at the areas where rezoning would clearly be beneficial, as has been discussed in light of the growth policy,” Haynes said. “There was a lot of work put into that, and there's certainly a lot of recommendations for the future.”

Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler said that while rezoning could have its place, a city-wide effort doing so wasn't likely feasible. However, she said, tackling rezoning on a smaller scale could find momentum.

Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley agreed, adding that a closer look at the city's current zoning tools would be a good place to start if the city opted to move forward with the Planning Board's request.

“Before we start looking at rezoning the city as a whole, we need to start looking at what zoning tools are missing from our toolbox,” said Bentley. “We should be doing this in smaller pieces.”

Ward 4 council member John DiBari, who served on the Planning Board for several years, said members of the board have a front-row seat to development trends and the associated challenges taking shape across the city.

He encouraged council members to give credence to the board's concerns and its request to make zoning a priority ahead of anticipated growth.

“To me, this carries a lot of weight,” DiBari said. “They've thought about this in a way that would provide a better growth policy. I think we should think carefully about ways we can help make that happen.”