Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With several thousand new residents and growth to the south and west of Missoula, the number of people living in several city wards has swelled beyond the targeted alignment, city officials said on Wednesday.

As a result, members of the City Council voted unanimously to adjust the boundaries of the city's six wards to bring them into balance. Thousands of residents will find themselves in a new ward and represented by a new member of City Council when it comes time to vote in this year's city elections.

“Every two years, in preparation for city elections, staff updates ward populations and proposes any changes needed to ward boundaries in order to maintain practical equality of population by ward,” said Mark Hendrickson, an associate planner with the city. “We're using residential building permits issued in 2021 and 2022 to estimate the number and distribution of the city's new population.”

Missoula's estimated city population in the 2021 redistricting project was 78,400. But more than 2,230 housing units were added in 2021 and 2022, and most of those occurred in Ward 5 and Ward 2, that latter accounting for nearly 50% of new residential development.

The least amount of growth occurred in Ward 4, which accounted for just 2% of new residential development.

During those two years, Missoula added nearly 4,900 new residents, bringing its current population to 83,500 people. Based on those figures, the population of a single ward should range between 13,400 and 14,300, Hendrickson said.

Estimated population by ward.
Estimated population by ward.

As a result, Wards 1 and 5 are within alignment while Wards 2 and 6 are over, and Wards 3 and 4 are under. The adjustments, which account for a few lots in some places and entire city blocks in others, will be in place when voters cast their ballot this spring.

“They really tried to keep neighborhoods intact while also thinking about how we expect the city to grow,” said city CEO Dale Bickell. “As growth happens, particularly in Wards 2 and 5, this is setting up to be a clockwise rotation. There could be little tweaks around the edges.”

Development trends

Projecting future growth based on building permits, the city anticipates that most new development will occur in Wards 2 and 5, representing the Sxwtpqyen and Miller Creek neighborhoods respectively. Ward 3 will also grow with a new wave of building planned in the Old Sawmill District.

Broken down by permit, Hendrickson said Ward 1 currently has 301 entitled lots, mostly located in the Marshall Canyon Area, while Ward 2 (Sxwtpqyen) has 1,947 entitled lots. Ward 3 has 440 entitled lots in the Old Sawmill District while Ward 4 has 30 entitled lots.

Ward 5, represented by Miller Creek, has more than 2,140 lots primed for development while Ward 6 has just 23 readied lots.

Residential growth will prompt changes to Mssoula's six wards.
Residential growth will prompt changes to Missoula's six wards.

“The expected growth areas are going to be in the Sxwtpqyen neighborhood, the Scott Street area, the Miller Creek subdivision on the south side of the city, and growth on Hillview Way,” Hendrickson said. “The Sawmill District will also expect to see growth.”

While the boundary adjustments are necessary, some members of the City Council expressed caution as the population base continues to shift toward areas seeing more growth. Some voters have found themselves moved in and out of a particular ward several times in recent years.

Such changes make it difficult for voters to keep track of who represents them, and who they should be watching when it comes time to vote.

“There's been a concerted effort to figure out forward movement in a logical way that expands but doesn't flip flop back and forth,” said council member Gwen Jones. “No one knows what ward they're in or what representative they have. So more consistency is great.”

Bickell said the new boundaries will mark the beginning of consistency since it's based on building permits and solid population estimates.

“The population increase in the last two years is double our pre-pandemic estimates. It's a big difference,” he said. “But the way we've started to lay this out means we won't have a drastic change.”