Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) As growth expands into rural areas around Missoula, infrastructure will be needed to guide and sustain it, but not all communities may be receptive to the upgrades, a recent survey found.

Missoula County last week approved a 160-acre industrial subdivision in the old West Bonner Log Yard – a project lauded for its potential to create jobs, attract new businesses and provide surrounding residents new live-work opportunities.

Before approving the industrial project, the county created a Targeted Economic Development District that spans the 160-acre property. New growth within the TEDD will provide the revenue needed to fund a community wastewater treatment system to support development.

Eventually, the system could be expanded to the surrounding West Riverside neighborhood.

“We're going to focus on the West Log Yard this year,” said Emily Brock, director of lands and economic development for the county. “We're going ensure the wastewater plant that's eventually built out there is big enough to serve the community, but we're not going to focus this year on bringing wastewater to the community.”

The county recently conducted a survey of 450 households exploring the desires of West Riverside residents in areas like infrastructure, services, recreation and other things.

While the results returned something of a mixed bag, it found that 82% of residents want to ensure that West Riverside remains affordable to current residents, and around 39% want better access to services like grocery stores, coffee shops and other amenities.

“We had a number of folks saying they wanted access to grocery stores, they wanted more services. But when it was asked in this survey, only 39% said they definitely or somewhat agreed,” said Missoula consultant Lilly Sussman. “It's not a community priority for most people. Most people actually care more about retaining character and keeping it affordable than they do having accesses to services. Folks are concerned about new development and how it impacts them.”

Missoula County will create a plan for West Riverside, taking into consideration the findings of the survey.
Missoula County will create a plan for West Riverside, taking into consideration the findings of the survey.

The survey also found that 84% of area residents wanted West Riverside to retain its character and remain independent of Missoula. And while 53% expressed support for a local wastewater system, a greater number expressed concern that it could fuel additional growth in the West Riverside area.

“Some people feel like some types of development could be beneficial, but 75% are concerned about new infrastructure,” said Sussman. “They connect infrastructure to development. People aren't thinking about infrastructure for itself. They're not just thinking about the utility of having a public wastewater system. They're thinking about what that will mean for development.”

Infrastructure needs outside of Missoula

The city and county of Missoula have completed the first phase of a $13 million infrastructure project in the greater Mullan area in Missoula. They're also working on an infrastructure plan for the Wye, which has been deemed appropriate for urban-scale development west of Missoula.

To the south, the county also has placed greater focus on improving the water and wastewater system in Lolo, another area poised for additional growth. West Riverside, which sits six miles east of Missoula, could also help meet the region's housing needs.

Missoula County is working toward an infrastructure plan for the Wye as urban-scale development moves in. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Missoula County is working toward an infrastructure plan for the Wye as urban-scale development moves in. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

County officials have noted that nearly all households in West Riverside are currently served by individual wells and septic. As those septic systems age and begin to fail, it could cost a household up to $20,000 or more to replace it.

Tapping into a community wastewater system could be more affordable for households and better for the environment in the long run. But the survey suggested that more engagement and outreach may be needed to clarify such points.

“The big concern right now is just growth,” said Missoula consultant Rachel Huff-Doria. “There's a lot of diverse viewpoints around wastewater in particular, but there's this fear around growth, there's a fear around development, and to some extent, people view the lack of infrastructure as preventing growth and development.”

With the survey completed and the West Bonner Log Yard subdivision approved, the county looks to create a community plan for West Riverside that addresses infrastructure, growth and affordability.

While the plan's details remain uncertain, it will likely include a wastewater management analysis and how infrastructure could impact community character. The county also has zoning tools that could help alleviate fears around new development.

“There's an opportunity for people in this area not to just have input on what infrastructure is needed, but to have input on zoning, which would mean a lot,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “There are planning tools that regulate or facilitate growth independent of access to wastewater, municipal sewer or water systems.”