City Growth Policy

Rory Austin rides his BMX bike the empty lot where the Bozeman's City Center Inn used to stand on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, off West Main Street. The Bozeman City Commission met on Tuesday to discuss the city's growth policy, which encourages building on empty lots like this one, as opposed to outward expansion. 

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A Bozeman city commissioner raised concerns during a meeting this week that the city’s draft growth policy doesn’t address one fundamental question: Should the city grow?

The growth policy, also called a community plan, will guide how the city will grow in coming years by setting guidelines for future land use, housing type and density and commercial development. The plan, which is dozens of pages long, includes sections on future land use designations, themes that are guiding the growth policy and how this plan will relate to other city planning documents.

But Commissioner Terry Cunningham pointed out that some Bozeman residents may want to back up a little bit.

“The conversation I’m hearing more and more of is: “Can we grow at a predictable rate, can we constrain our growth, how do we deal with growth?’” Cunningham said. “Quite frankly, some of the answers to the growth plan discussion are: ‘Don’t grow.’ I’m hearing that a lot.”

Cunningham suggested the draft growth policy include information on why the plan lays out how to guide growth, rather than slowing it by limiting the issuing of new building permits or setting a boundary where growth will be cut off once reached.

City manager Jeff Mihelich, who has worked in other fast-growing places like Fort Collins, Colorado, said there is a history in the United States with places that implement policies to limit growth end up seeing that growth occur just outside of the city limits, meaning they still deal with the same traffic and pollution from new development, but without any of the controls they would have if the growth was happening in their borders.

“You really can’t push growth out of the region. You may push it outside the city limits, but you will still deal with the negative externalities of it,” Mihelich said.

“What I think this plan does in a particularly good way is it says if we are going to grow as a region let’s focus that growth into areas where we can accommodate it, where it makes the most sense and where we have infrastructure to support it.”

Cunningham said the plan would be “incomplete” without a section addressing the question, which Mayor Cyndy Andrus echoed.

The commissioners had their first chance Tuesday to offer feedback and question city staff about the growth policy, which is now in the final stages of adoption.

The plan encourages infill or redevelopment within the existing city borders, and advises the city to look into annexation possibilities with land that is on the edge of the city or completely surrounded by Bozeman.

The future land use map designates what kind of development the city would prefer in the future for sections of the city and for land surrounding Bozeman. The largest land area, community development manager Chris Saunders said, is the urban neighborhood designation, which emphasizes a diversity of housing types.

The future land use map is not expected to be filled out in the next few years, Saunders said, but is meant to be a road map for decades. The community plan passed in 1958, for example, laid out a vision for 19th Avenue that took decades to be realized.

“People were wondering ‘Why were you thinking so far in advance?’ But it turns out now it’s miles and miles inside of city limits,” Saunders said. “We do this planning and it really looks a little strange sometimes but what we see as the community continues to change and develop is that becomes very necessary to have that in place.”

Beyond a section addressing growth, Cunningham suggested the plan include measures to encourage more intense development near the city’s big employers, incentivize development of underused properties, among other items.

Andrus said she’s heard concerns from people that the plan doesn’t address historic preservation and maintaining a “sense of place” in Bozeman.

“How are we thinking about preservation as we move forward in a community that continues to grow?” Andrus said.

Several commissioners questioned what impact the future development broadly lays out in the growth policy will have on the natural environment. Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy asked about how the plan would address farmland preservation, which she said should be an important priority.

“Being able to build at city densities takes some of the pressure off the farmland,” Saunders said.

Commissioner Michael Wallner also questioned whether the future land use map encourages development too close to forestland, which could increase wildfire risk or impacts to wildlife, and suggested the plan account for outward growth’s impact on the environment.

The plan will come back to the city commission on Oct. 20, and will be revised as needed based on commissioner feedback before coming back for a vote, scheduled for late November.

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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