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State of Missoula: Housing, code reform and climate take center stage

Downtown Missoula aerial
Posted at 9:36 AM, Apr 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-12 11:36:58-04

MISSOULA - Elected officials from the city and county of Missoula on Monday offered their views on the state of the community, with housing, climate and building codes running as a common theme.

The broad-ranging discussion, which also touched on behavioral health and homelessness, marks an annual event that often lends insight into the priorities facing the two governments and what issues they may focus on as the budgeting season nears.

In her first full term as a Missoula County commissioner, Juanita Vero cited a wide range of challenges facing the greater Missoula area including a labor shortage, rising home costs, increasing property taxes and a changing climate, among other things.

The issues can often be divisive, though the county is seeking wider collaboration as it works to solve them, Vero said.

“If you’re scrolling through social media, we’re a community that’s so divided and self-righteous that we’re unhearing,” she said. “But contrary to what you see or hear at the state and national levels, we’ve actually learned how to better collaborate over the last couple of years and strengthen the trust within county departments and our community partners.”

Among the county’s immediate goals, it’s placing federal funding toward infrastructure development and is currently updating its zoning codes. The update will cover the urban area outside the city limits including Bonner, East Missoula and the Wye.

The draft is expected on May 5.

“It’s been 46 years since we’ve overhauled these regulations and they no longer address current challenges and opportunities,” Vero said. “Outdated codes create unintended regulatory barriers to housing development – we’ve heard that loud and clear.”

Protecting natural resources also play a factor in the code updates, though Vero said it doesn’t need to be exclusive. The reform looks to balance Missoula’s housing needs while protecting natural resources.

The code reform is expected to focus on clustered development to preserve prime agricultural soils while also protecting wildlife corridors and riparian areas.

“The code will protect riparian vegetation to keep our waterways cool and our soils intact,” Vero said. “These are important considerations in the face of climate change.”

Climate change remains an issue facing both the city and county and their future operations. Vero said the county is taking steps to address the challenges.

Earlier this year, the county implemented a newly authorized program to allow commercial property owners to invest in energy efficiency, water conservation and clean energy, and pay back the costs in assessments added to their property taxes.

The county also is making improvements on its own behalf, she said.

“We have a goal of carbon neutrality by 2035, and we continue to work with the city to achieve 100% cleanly generated electricity in the urban area by 2030,” Vero said. “We’ve also installed the largest rooftop solar array in Montana on the detention center, and we had another rooftop array put on the public library.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen, now in his fifth term, also focused on collaboration, code reform and housing. While the challenges face many thriving Western cities and solutions don’t come easy, he believes Missoula is up to the challenge.

“It’s all about our collective approach to these issues that will make the change that we need to make,” he said. “Housing is a critical issue in Missoula, as it is around the state. But the difference is our degree of intentionality and our degree of collaboration, and our willingness to try and fail.”

Like the county, Engen acknowledged that code reform “will make a huge difference in how housing gets built in Missoula.” In recent years, members of the Consolidated Planning Board and City Council have lamented the fact that the city’s growth policy and zoning codes don’t often align.

Code reform will help address that, Engen said.

“As we look at the not-so-sexy issues of code reform, we’re also looking at regulations around the natural and built environment,” he said, calling it one of Missoula’s primary assets.

“As we look at the way we address our riverfront and the way we address our transportation system, all those pieces come together, and they all come together in ways that are associated with the work we’re doing at the University of Montana, the City of Missoula and Missoula County.”