Planning advocates fight off inertia
Supporters fear new comp plan will just gather dust
After all the acronymical eye-gouging over DUSAs and UGAs, all the months of meetings, local lawmakers passed the new plan that will guide Missoula's growth into the next century with uncharacteristic ease.
City council, so largely remade in a November election when the Urban Comprehensive Plan spawned plenty of controversy, sailed the novel-sized blueprint unanimously. County commissioners Michael Kennedy and Fern Hart combined to seal the deal last Wednesday.
The lone hitch came from Commissioner Barbara Evans, who abstained, saying she hadn't been provided a clean copy of the oft-amended plan.
Passage of the massive master plan, however, is only the beginning. Talking to local decision-makers this week, it's clear that implementation will be difficult, to say the least.
Over the summer, decision makers will begin to shape new zoning and subdivision regulations, a process that could provide as much fodder for political battles as the comp plan itself.
The problem is, it's not clear that everyone is behind the plan they just gave approval to; some city council members, for instance, say they voted for the plan just to get it off their desks. Those who support the plan now face the challenge of turning its lofty goal-no less than the Good City-into reality.
"We have a really bad history in Missoula of doing this-making plans that don't go forward," says council member Jim McGrath, who had to remind his colleagues during the vote two weeks ago that the plan they were approving would have to be obeyed.
"Let's not just pass it with sort of a wink and a nod. Zoning and subdivision regulations have to be in substantial compliance with the plan. If you're rezoning something, council should look at the comprehensive plan."
That may well be easier said than done, as McGrath acknowledges, during fights over zoning and subdivision regs.
"People are very intensely invested in their zoning," he notes.
Some question whether the citizens, who must now tailor their development dreams to the plan, understand it at all.
"It seems to me that it's not too much to expect that, in a process that's taken years, they should give people more than three lousy days to read the thing before they vote on it," Barbara Evans says. "If it's as wonderful a plan as they say it is, why the rush?"
That Evans has a few criticisms of the plan comes as small surprise. Relatively early in the process, she stopped attending planning meetings, saying her presence was "disruptive." In last fall's election season, she played a key role in the creation of Citizens for Common Sense Government, a PAC opposed to some more restrictive planks in the proposed comp plan.
Now, Evans says she's concerned about the accuracy of the maps used in the final stages of the approval process, and still feels the plan should have been put to a public vote. (Officials from the Office of Planning and Grants, however, say Evans' map criticisms are unfounded, and Evans herself points to no specifics.)
One of Evans' fellow commissioners, Fern Hart, says planning has been an inclusive process and that those who'll work directly on development know what's going on.
"When we begin to do an update, we ask a technical committee that involves city and county people and private folk-builders and realtors included-to help," Hart says. "We've been trying to run this by the people who will be implementing it on the ground. We all feel like we've lived with this for a couple of years."
The missing link between the inner sanctum of developers, planners and politicians who constructed the plan and the public at large may well be the city's newest layer of government, the vaunted neighborhood councils.
The councils, which are to be town-meeting style bodies open to everyone living and working in a given area, are finally leaving the realm of myth. According to Linda and Judy Smith, the sisters hired by the city to kick-start the councils into existence, there should be eight or nine functioning councils by the end of the summer.
Each of those councils, under the direction of elected leaders, will write yet another plan for their neighborhood, a micro-blueprint that will be filed with the Office of Planning and Grants. Once those are in place, theoretically anyway, the course of individual development projects should be self-explanatory.
"A developer should be able to walk into OPG, look at the comp plan, look at a neighborhood plan, and go before the neighborhood council and city council already knowing what's in store," Linda Smith says.
Perhaps the advent of the neighborhood councils can correct a problem that everyone involved seems to cop to, a lack of understanding on the part of the public at large.
For her part, Hart agrees to a certain extent that people don't know as much as they could about the plan. She goes on to say, however, that she doubts more time would have added up to a more informed public.
"I believe it's gotten good scrutiny, though not as much as it might have," she says. "I don't really blame the media-this is not hot news. You all come in and dip in, then move on, then dip in later. And I'm not sure the public will sit and read an in-depth article about this sort of thing."
So if you made it this far, bully for you.