City commissioners on Tuesday will vote on Bozeman’s growth policy, which will guide how the city will expand and develop for the next two decades.
With Bozeman’s population projected to increase by nearly 27,000 people by 2045, the plan will be the founding principles for zoning, annexation and development decisions. The growth policy was revised with comments from commissioners at previous meetings to include a section addressing a question many residents have on their minds: Should Bozeman continue to grow, or should the city limit growth?
The short answer, according to the revised community plan, is the city could take actions to constrain growth of Bozeman itself by not annexing more property or not expanding the reach of city utilities like water and sewer.
But, the plan says, that is unlikely to stop people from moving to the area. Growth would still happen, but without influence from the city.
With many treating the population increase as an inevitability, local environmental groups are concerned with how the city will manage the growth while also protecting the environment.
“As people rush to our area, especially with this pandemic, to accommodate this burdensome economy we tend to put away the things that are going to sustain us, the reason people came here,” said Loreene Reid, with the Sacajawea Audubon Society. “We need really hard decisions on accommodating people to live here and making sure it is a sustainable place to live.”
Reid said she is concerned with the impact development has on wetlands and floodplains in and around Bozeman.
Development in recent decades, Sacajawea Audubon president Chris Nixon said, has already filled in “an enormous amount” of floodplains.
“There’s precious little left that we haven’t already impacted,” Nixon said.
Nixon and others said they support most of the plan’s goals, which include prioritizing resiliency, the natural environment, parks and open lands, accessibility and mobility. What worries them is whether the city commission and others in the community are ready to put actions behind words, said Forrest Rowland, also with the Audubon Society.
Rowland said he is concerned that the rate at which Bozeman is growing — the city is expected to break 50,000 in population in the 2020 census — is too fast to keep up with.
“It’d be nice to be able to go at a pace where things that can’t be undone are done responsibly,” Rowland said.
Though the plan emphasizes infill, it acknowledges “compact outward growth” as a part of the city’s growth.
A future land use map included with the policy extends beyond the current city borders to cover more than 70 square miles, indicating which land uses the city would like to see on specific parcels, should they be redeveloped.
The map’s extent — reaching close to the national forest and other open and forested lands near the city — has raised concern for some. Community development manager Chris Saunders emphasized that the map isn’t a projection of land the city is demanding be annexed into the city and developed, but rather is a future-looking map that may never be realized.
“We have no expectations that all of that is going to fill in in 20 years. It may never fill in,” Saunders said.
Representatives from the Sierra Club, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other environmental groups sent public comment to the city commission in the spring criticizing the draft growth policy for not including any language on limiting human-wildlife conflicts.
Jennifer Sherry, with the National Resources Defense Council, signed the letter. While Sherry said the plan does a good job of recognizing that the natural environment is a big draw to Bozeman, more thought needs to be given to how the city’s growth can be concentrated to leave space for wildlife.
Prevention planning is key, Sherry said.
“I think a lot of people recognize that we are in this critical moment of unprecedented change, and if we don’t plan really carefully for it then we will extinguish the natural character of this area,” Sherry said.
Commissioner Jennifer Madgic — who served on the planning board while it was shaping the community plan, said there is a “conservation bent” to the document. Infill is part of that, Madgic said, but doesn’t come without consequences. Recent, dense development downtown, for example, impacted neighbors.
“You have to do it right in a way that doesn’t unfairly burden an existing system or an existing neighborhood,” Madgic said. “Density can be a good thing but you have to be really thoughtful about how you add it.”
City commissioners will also discuss the draft climate action plan Tuesday, which shares some goals with the growth policy.
Bozeman sustainability program manager Natalie Meyer said the climate team, which helped put together the action plan, wanted to promote active modes of transportation to reduce congestion and improve air quality.
That includes expanding and shoring up the city’s trail system, officials said, but the plan also pushes for compact neighborhoods that include nearby, small-scale commercial development. Having shops within walking distance increases pedestrian access, but Madgic said neighborhoods where cars are less necessary have widespread impacts.
“When we design and live in compact neighborhoods, there’s more room to protect the things we care about, like watersheds, wildlife habitat, garden space, and (agricultural) land,” Madgic said.
Though density is encouraged, Commissioner Michael Wallner said the growth cycle will likely continue both upward and outward, and it will be imperative for the city to recognize the impacts of its growth and work to minimize their footprint.
“In the near future, we will have to make tough public policy decisions to limit the negative impacts growth is having in the Gallatin Valley,” Wallner said.
The city will have to work with local governments, nonprofits and others to preserve open space, Wallner said.
A few people critiqued what they see as a lack of specifics related to the plan. Clint Nagel, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, said he is concerned about the potential that growth will interfere with existing wildlife habitat, particularly winter range for elk south of Bozeman.
Nagel said he’d like to see more planning to preserve both wildlife corridors that extend north from the Gallatin Range into the Continental Divide ecosystem and open space between forest and city limits.
The plan does identify and preserve wildlife corridors as a goal, but Nagel said he wants more details.
“We need more words than just to say we’re for wildlife connectivity. We’d like to see how that would be implemented and where that would be implemented,” Nagel said.
Madgic and others emphasized more steps are needed to realize the goals of the plan, like regulations and other tools.
Saunders said without regulations, the plan is useless.
“These plans are critical to say, this is what we’re trying to achieve. But if we don’t take steps forward for implementation, then they just stay on the shelf,” Saunders said. “The plans are important but they are definitely not the end of the process.”