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City of Missoula embarks on review of subdivision, townhome policies

Posted at 4:29 PM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 18:38:46-04

MISSOULA — Efforts to update the city’s subdivision and townhome policies touched on affordable housing Wednesday, along with the regulatory barriers that drive up development costs and hinder the supply of residential construction.

Working with consultants, the city will receive the recommended policy changes by September and take any fixes required at the state level to Legislature next year.

“We believe there may be some priorities for legislative changes that might come through us,” said council member Jordan Hess. “We want to make sure there’s plenty of lead time to not only provide procedure for the next construction season, but also to make any statewide recommendations.”

A survey conducted by the consultants, Design Workshop, found a number of issues in the city’s subdivision and Townhome Exemption Development (TED) review processes that could be improved.

The responses included reducing barriers to new supply, promoting access to affordable homes and simplifying the development process. They also included more predictability and cutting the time it takes to get a project reviewed.

The bullet points launched council members into nearly two hours of esoteric debate that danced between zoning and child care to peer communities.

“We’re looking to focus on outcomes – how we can provide a recommendations report that Missoula can use to amend its code and some of its process to make the subdivision process and the TED process run a little more smoothly, clearly, and have an alignment of understanding with the community,” said Jessica Garrow, a consultant with Design Workshop.

Several council members took issue with the city’s perceived flaws and questioned their source, suggesting they were skewed toward the development community.

But Lavall Means of Development Services took the recommendations in stride. While the city currently has what she described as good community standards, she said it could always do better.

“I look at it as more work to do, not as a negative on what we’re not doing,” said Means. “We shouldn’t be settling on our status-quo approach but be thinking about how we can improve and take that into consideration for recommendations going forward.”

It’s been several years since the city looked at its subdivision regulations in a comprehensive way, though it more recently amended its TED process. That occurred last year after several projects left the council bogged down in protracted debate.

One development spent more than a year under City Council review. The result left members of the public, the developers and council members frustrated with the process.

“There seems to be a sentiment, right or wrong, that going through TED was easier than going through subdivision,” said council member Stacey Anderson. “It seems like people were trying to morph their round-hole subdivision project to fit the square peg of TED, which left us the council trying to shave off those edges to make the project work.”

Council member Jesse Ramos questioned the value of going through another policy review with another consultant. He said the city had gone down this road before, though he agreed the points noted in the survey on areas needing attention were valid.

“At the end of the day, we have to be self honest and realize why a lot of these things (are on the list) is because we’re not addressing them,” said Ramos. “That’s why affordable housing is nonexistent in Missoula, because we have all these different areas and we’re paying God knows how much money for these consultants to tell us this.”

Hess said it will be up the council to implement the recommendations offered by the consultants in their review of Missoula’s subdivision and TED process.

“Ultimately it will be council action that causes this policy to be put into place,” said Hess. “At the of the day, members of the public who are providing comment, and developers and council members, are all unsatisfied with some of those processes.”

Ramos also prodded the survey’s suggestion that policy changes “promote access to affordable homes.” Whether that meant subsidized affordability or clearing the way for market-driven affordability wasn’t immediately answered.

“We’re going to take our guidance from the housing department more on that,” said Means. “With the housing policy in place, we’re looking forward to the refinement of definitions. As this process goes along, we can see what that looks like.”

Garrow said her team was on track to present their final recommendations by September.