Downtown Wild

Traffic flows through downtown Bozeman on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

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The city commission passed a new growth policy earlier this month and set the guidelines for Bozeman’s future, but there is still a long way to go before that vision is realized.

The adoption of the growth policy, also called a community plan, brought to an end two years of work from city staff, the city commission and the planning board. It replaces the 2009 community plan and largely leans on density, infill and expanding the city’s borders as the ways Bozeman will handle projected population growth in coming decades.

But the document itself is not regulatory, meaning that more work will be needed before the goals of the plan are implemented.

“It would be a big mistake to just call it good right now that that growth policy is done,” said city commissioner Jennifer Madgic, who joined the commission in October after years on the planning board.

The plan includes a list of short-term suggested actions, including revising the zoning map and building codes, establishing communication with the county on development and evaluating the city’s building height maximums, parking requirements and other measures.

Community development manager Chris Saunders said the city will begin determining the baselines for various metrics in the plan. Another early step will be pulling together a cross-departmental group of staff to coordinate parts of the growth policy with other city plans and work, Saunders said.

The short-term action items and other goals will be prioritized based on how important they are to the commission and the community, senior planner Tom Rogers said.

A plan that took two years to put together isn’t going to come to fruition speedily, Saunders said.

“The growth policy itself does not give a lot of specifics, which is very appropriate because it’s a planning document. It’s not operational. But now we need to move into that operational side,” Saunders said. “It’s a 20-year plan, and we can’t implement the whole thing the first three months.”

Madgic and other commissioners said one of the first things the city should look at is the unified development code, which contains the city’s standards and guidelines for developments.

Planning board member Jerry Pape said the code is far too complicated, making it difficult for developers to build certain types of housing. Fellow planning board member Mark Egge said the code should be simple and unambiguous.

“Complexity drives cost, and also limits who can participate in solving our housing challenge,” Egge said.

Real estate broker Joe Cobb, who is involved with the Bozeman Development Consortium, agreed. There are hurdles in the way of some types of development the plan promotes, Cobb said, like mixed-use residential and commercial buildings or residential developments near major employers.

“We have unfortunately a really high cost of building here, and sometimes there’s less incentives for developers to do those sort of services because the city has a lot of strict codes that they have to adhere to, and sometimes the return on that is not great,” Cobb said.

The unified development code is already revised biannually, but Saunders said revisions typically consist of small updates. The code will be one of the biggest implementing tools of the community plan, Rogers said.

“The plan says well we want good quality buildings, we want connectivity, we want access to parks,” Rogers said. “All of those statements get transferred into standards.”

Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham said he would also prioritize taking a large-scale look at revising the zoning map to encourage infill and increased density, and identifying areas on the zoning map where affordable housing or “missing middle” housing could go.

The key to alleviating Bozeman’s housing problems, Cunningham said, will be working collaboratively with developers.

Still, as the city begins undertaking the real work to implement the growth policy, Bozeman’s ever-accelerating growth is adding pressure. Citing the city’s growth, commissioner Michael Wallner said he is focused on making sure Bozeman’s neighborhoods are preserved.

Echoing Wallner, Madgic said developing a “desirable community” with such rapid growth will be a challenge.

“It’s a heavy lift under normal circumstances ... You have to be thoughtful, you have to be careful,” Madgic said. “Planning is super important to all of that, but to do it when you’re under the gun trying to accommodate a lot of newcomers makes it that much tougher.”

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

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