MISSOULA — With the ceremonies over and the first meeting of the new City Council now in the books, Missoula’s top elected officials expect to see housing, climate and equity among the top issues they’ll face in 2022.
They also plan to guide new development to ensure it meets the city’s design standards, master plans and zoning – the latter also on the table this year for potential reform.
“We’ve got these three inter-related challenges of housing, equity and climate, and we have to continue to look at all of our decisions through those lenses,” said council member Jordan Hess. “Housing is an issue that touches us all. It’s an issue that cuts across our entire community, from an economic development standpoint to a social services standpoint.”
Gwen Jones, the City Council’s new president, also named housing as a leading issue heading into 2022. The council will continue to focus as it can on the issue, and the city believes some federal funding could become available to help.
“The main things are housing, and we’re going to continue to move forward as best we can,” said Jones. “There should be some federal money trickling down from the state that should really make a difference, but a lot of factors need to come into alignment there.”
Aside from housing, climate change is expected to become a subject of greater focus this year. In past years, the city has begun to address the issue, completing a study on its carbon footprint and drafting climate-related goals with the county, including efforts to achieve 100% clean electricity and zero waste.
Mountain Line also has new electric busses on the road, and solar panels have been placed on the Missoula County jail. A similar project is expected to take place at the city’s water treatment plant.
“We’ve got good initiatives in place, and we’re going to keep implementing those policies,” said Jones.
Over the past year, members of the City Council and the Consolidated Planning Board have lamented the need to squeeze new projects into zoning that was written before the city’s growth policy was adopted.
With the mismatched tools now an issue, the City Council this year will kick off a code reform process to bring zoning more in line with the growth policy. It could also spark some controversial debates, such as inclusionary zoning and other potential changes to what Missoulians currently know.
“We’re kicking off our code reform process to make sure we have orderly, predictable development that removes barriers but ensures development remains high quality,” said Hess. “It’s a huge opportunity to get that zoning code right.”
Development has been an issue for some over the past year while others have welcomed it, and this year it’s not expected to change. A number of projects are on tap in the downtown district, and growth will continue to play out in the greater Mullan area, as well as the Midtown district.
Missoula Mayor John Engen said growth contributes to the city’s economic well-being and is welcome so long as it meets the city’s existing policies. Jones agreed, saying current policies will continue to guide new and future projects.
“We have a growth policy that discusses more density and we’ve really got a need for housing across the board, and more specifically affordable housing,” Jones said. “We’ll look at everything with thoughtfulness. We’re in an era of change in Missoula with growth and development, just as many places across the Mountain West are experiencing.”
Engen, who now enters his fifth term as mayor, said he’ll carry out the pledge he made during his latest campaign – ensuring city services are up to par and getting things done.
“It’s housing, making lives better all the way around, ensuring we have a financial construct that’s sustainable, an organizational construct that’s sustainable, and that we do the work here better than what we’re seeing done at other levels of government,” Engen said. “We need to get to yes in a lot of ways. We’re pretty good at that, but we need to get better at it.”
Last year’s November election saw changes to the City Council. Four incumbents chose not to run, and two were replaced by self-professed Democratic Socialists. The turnover also saw one of the city’s more conservative candidates leave in Jesse Ramos.
Councilmember Sandra Vasceka, whose vote often aligned with Ramos’s vote, has her own issues she’d like to address this year.
“It’ll be a lot of that same issues we’ve been facing – homelessness and crime,” she said. “Crime has been on an increase. It’s the same things of when I ran my campaign two years ago – traffic and first responders, and housing affordability is going to be a big one.”