Growth Planning Goes Interactive in Missoula County, Mont.

County planners have turned to technology to engage with the public and plot a course for expansion in the region.

Eve Byron, Missoulian / October 18, 2018
Courtesy Missoula County

(TNS) — Missoula County, Mont.’s future is colorful, based on an interactive map of the early stages of a growth policy that eventually will include zoning regulations.

The county’s current growth policy is about as old as the technology used to create it 40 years ago.

Today, Andrew Hagemeier, a planner with the Missoula County Community and Planning Services department, pulls up an interactive map of Missoula County on a wide-screen television and starts to dig into the various ways he hopes people will give feedback to the county as it starts down the growth policy road.

“Infrastructure is one of the government’s biggest expenditures, as is delivery of services,” Hagemeier said as he pulls up the map covered in splotches of purple, red, pink, yellow, blue, and green. “It’s important that it reflects the values of the community. Missoula’s values are similar to what they were in the ‘70s, but not the same.”

Previously, the county had 64 different land use designations, which evolved into something that no longer was an effective planning policy tool. Those have been distilled down to 12 designations people can easily understand, such as agriculture, rural residential and commercial center.

Hagemeier said they didn’t want the designations to be hyper specific or fixate on communities. Instead, he wants people to consider the ecosystems and how they’ve evolved to create a genuine policy-guiding document.

Across the top of the map are icons that can be dragged onto it. One is a thumbs up. Others indicate the person has a question or concern, that more or less of something is needed or that something should be improved. Already, icons dot the map where people have left comments.

For example, a turquoise and white icon, which indicates “this should be improved,” sits in the Target Range area. A comment with the icon notes that, “This needs much higher density — so close to town, on the same street grid as the city core, infrastructure already in place.” It’s been “liked” once, and there’s also room to start or view the discussion.

But Hagemeier knows the people who live in Target Range enjoy the rural characteristics of their neighborhood. The interactive map provides a forum for those discussions with others.

It’s important to have these and other conversations as between 1,000 and 2,000 people move into Missoula and Missoula County every year. That’s one of the realities area residents must face, he said.

“Another reality is that geography plays a huge role in our valley on determining where growth can go. You can’t develop on steep slopes or on a river,” he said. "We are limited in our options.”

Then there’s the infrastructure — water, sewer, streets and transit — that also are critical factors in the county’s growth plan. Most of the water and sewer are extensions from the city’s services, and people want to see that developed strategically.

And they want to protect existing values.

“We don’t want to fill up the Missoula Valley with one-acre lots from here to Frenchtown,” Hagemeir said. “People want development to be focused to protect agricultural land, wild lands and open spaces. That means we need infrastructure to make it work.”

So far, the county has spent a year gathering feedback from area residents and stakeholders. Now that the new map is online at missoulaareamapping.com, they’re kicking off another round of community engagement to learn whether they’re heading down the correct road or not.

County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier is excited about the interactive nature of the process, and said he hopes people understand the importance of giving input.

“Clearly we have outgrown the previous iteration amid growth pressures,” Strohmaier said. “This is important and one thing that might fly under the radar screen for many folks. But this map will be the foundation from which we will plan the community’s future for a couple of decades.”

©2018 Missoulian, Mont. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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