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Growth challenges Missoula’s permitting and planning office, but light ahead

Eran Pehan
Posted at 10:10 AM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-26 12:10:43-04

MISSOULA — While facing a staffing shortage, the city’s development office issued more than 7,000 building permits over the past fiscal year, approved the platting of nearly 600 homes, and partnered with the private sector to develop 70 housing units set aside as permanently affordable.

Eran Pehan, director of the renamed office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation said the pace of development in Missoula has challenged her division, as has the pandemic and pre-existing staffing shortages.

But looking forward, she sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’ve worked hard to keep up with the demands of development review,” Pehan said. “We admittedly have work to do in this area to build capacity and to streamline our process.”

During last year’s budgeting process, the office formerly known as Development Services was already facing a staffing shortage. Its former director left in 2019 and his chosen replacement backed out of the job at the last minute.

In addition, the department at the time had at least five planner positions vacant, two inspectors and a transportation engineer. But Pehan this week told members of the City Council that many of those positions have since been filled, or will be soon.

“Within the next two weeks, we will have brought on a new business manager, a climate action specialist, and we’re in the process of bringing on a new housing projects manager to oversee our housing programs,” she said. “We do still have a key position we’re currently in recruitment for, for deputy director of development services. That’s a very key hire for our division and will help us achieve our goals there.”

Even with strained capacity over the past year, Pehan said her office paved the way for the construction of 585 new homes with preliminary and final plats. It also approved three multi-family buildings and other projects under the state’s townhome exemption laws.

Pehan said those figures represent activity before Jan. 1, and several sizable projects have been approved over the last three months.

“The sheer pace of development activity in Missoula has created ongoing capacity issues,” Pehan said. “This is not a bad problem to have, especially in a community facing a significant housing supply shortage. The good news is that it’s a problem we can fix.”

Pehan said a plan to do so will be presented to the City Council in the coming weeks. But capacity issues aren’t the only challenge the department is charged with addressing since the city realigned the planning and permitting division.

It’s now charged with addressing housing and the city’s homeless programs, climate and energy conservation, equity and mobility, including Public Works.

“There’s an ever-growing need to align our efforts in those realms,” Pehan said. “They’re intimately connected and prioritize our investments in the city. We’re working hard at the city level through that strategic framework on that alignment and prioritizing. We’re also working hard at the department level.”

Under the new alignment and over the past fiscal year, Pehan said her department moved closer to breaking ground on 430 permanently affordable homes that are planned with other community partners. It also partnered with the private sector to include 70 affordable homes for sale in a project planned off Scott Street.

Pehan said her office also has worked to grow the city’s new Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which now holds a balance of around $2.4 million.

“We continue to identify new sources of funding for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund,” she said. “We’re also moving toward the redevelopment of city-owned properties to meet our current and future housing needs.”

Those properties including the Scott Street redevelopment, a midtown parcel near Montana Rail Link Park, the old library block and several parcels along West Broadway.

Filling the department’s remaining positions will help the office keep pace with development, she said.

“We primarily are struggling in our development review functions and planner positions,” Pehan said. “The reality is, development is moving at such a breakneck pace, and the private sector is scooping up those brilliant planners just as quickly as we’re trying to do the same.”