No zoning? No problem.

Lack of zoning laws allow entrepreneurs to thrive in East Missoula.


This story is the second installment of a series focusing on how Missoula and its surrounding communities are grappling with challenges of sustainable growth. (If you haven’t yet, check out the first of the series here.) It was written by the The Missoulian and is published here as part of The Montana Gap project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

People living in the small towns outside of Missoula want to be able to control their own destiny by making decisions about growth and infrastructure rather than having those decisions made by the city government, because they generally would rather be under county governance, but they also don’t want to see higher taxes. There doesn’t seem to be a cohesive sense among residents for how to go about planning for the future and what power they have to do it. Many would like more economic development, but most are against high-density housing or higher taxes.

For Lee Bridges, a 35-year homeowner in East Missoula, and board member on the East Missoula Community Council a big part of the path toward economic sustainability is for her community to come up with its own zoning designations, through the County rather than finding themselves “cookie-cutter” zoned by the City of Missoula once they are likely annexed due to growth over the next decade.

She says the cultural values and urban zoning codes of Missoula aren’t always a match for how residents of the outlying communities see their future. “We want to keep our community as unique and independent as we possibly can and retain as much as we possibly can,” Bridges said. “Once we get annexed by the City of Missoula, we get stamped. We are working with Missoula County in order to tailor our zoning to meet our needs that are in place. A whole lot of us are building lifestyles and livelihoods here, so we hope they let us write our own plan.”

Lee Bridges stands in her sheet metal fabrication shop on her property in East Missoula where she lives. Bridges wants her community to come up with its own zoning designations through Missoula County rather than be zoned by the City of Missoula once they are annexed.
Tom Bauer, Missoulian

Currently, East Missoula contains a large swath of land that is completely unzoned, which allows entrepreneurial activity in people’s homes.

For example, Bridges runs a sheet metal fabrication shop in a shop on her property where she lives, and many of her neighbors operate similar endeavors, such as motorcycle-painting or cabinet-building businesses, out of their homes. The commercial versus residential zoning designations in Missoula would “wipe them out” if they were overlayed on East Missoula’s unique character, she said. “That’s our hot button issue in East Missoula,” she said. “There are several other cottage industries and shop buildings in my surrounding and adjacent blocks that also have shops where people are making a living on their residential properties. It’s a unique situation. A lot of us have lived here for a very long time and we want to maintain a uniqueness.”

She said because of the “threat of annexation” that she and her neighbors should come up with designations beforehand. “If we don’t speak up on this we are going to lose the opportunity, so I’ve been wanting to educate the public,” she said. “We want to maintain that uniqueness and not have it thrown to the wind. We don’t want Missoula to blanket us with an overall zoning designation that would prevent those of us who are living out here continue as we are living.”

East Missoulians wouldn’t mind zoning in theory, as long as it’s done right. “A lot of people think being unzoned is good, but it’s not good,” said Dick Ainsworth, the chair of the East Missoula Community Council. “It protects everybody. We would like to get a school and a grocery store other than the convenience store, which is better than nothing. That would make it more of a community.”

One way for these small towns to control their own destiny is to incorporate, but many residents balk at that. Jeri Delys of Frenchtown says people half-jokingly refer to it as the “i-word” and dislike the concept as much as the “z- word” for zoning and the “s word” for sewer. In general, residents of rural towns don't want to be told what to do by the government of a nearby larger city.

“We don’t have zoning out here, which is a blessing and a curse,” Delys said. “Somebody can subdivide right next to your 20 acres you saved your entire life for and they can put in mobile homes. And that makes a difference for housing options. But zoning and sewer and incorporating are subjects that are not well-embraced.”

Cola Rowley, a Missoula County Commissioner who lives in Lolo, said it’s safe to say that taxes generally go up with incorporation, because the towns are now responsible for having a mayor, a city council, administrative support, law enforcement and infrastructure maintenance.

Jason Furman, a former chairman of the White House’s Council on Economic Advisers, believes zoning laws create artificial scarcity by that boosts inequality. For example, if zoning laws limit the number of places where houses or businesses can be built, those properties become immediately more valuable when the zoning designation is put in place because they are now in more demand.

“While land use regulations sometimes serve reasonable and legitimate purposes, they can also give extra-normal returns to entrenched interests at the expense of everyone else,” Furman was quoted as saying in 2016 by the Brookings Institution. “Zoning regulations and other local barriers to housing development (can) allow a small number of individuals to capture the economic benefits of living in a community, thus limiting diversity and mobility.”

The city of Houston, Texas has often been cited by many economists as an example of how, with no zoning code, it has become a model of low housing prices and robust growth.

Nolan Gray wrote in Market Urbanism that although restaurants, homes, warehouses and offices are free to mix in however they choose in Houston, the market-driven decisions by these businesses means they cluster away from residential neighborhoods without any legal reason to do so. Tiny homes and micro-apartments are also common in the city. So, there is evidence that lax zoning laws can help communities find economic sustainability. So far, it’s worked for many residents of East Missoula. Bridges would like to see it stay that way.

Pat O’Herron, Missoula County’s chief planning officer, said that zoning typically enhances economic growth and stability by providing a predictable development process that reduces the cost of development while concurrently protecting community values. “Since zoning is based on a growth policy that covers a large geographic area, developable tracts of land can be planned, and zoned, for a variety of uses ranging from residential to mixed commercial/residential, full commercial, open space, agriculture and other uses,” he said.

There are many differences between East Missoula and Houston, but the main difference is there’s a whole lot of flat land to build on in Texas, and not much in the mountains surrounding Missoula. Not having space to build indefinitely changes the way a community has to plan its growth. “It should be zoned,” said Dick Ainsworth, the chair of the East Missoula Community Council. “So people know what they’re going to get. Within the rules, zoning lets you know what you can do with a piece of property and the neighbors next door or across the street know as well.”

Ainsworth believes that the sewer installation was beneficial to East Missoula. But for Bonner and Frenchtown, which are farther away, it would be much more difficult to connect to Missoula’s sewer system. They aren’t dense enough yet to need their own sewer district like Lolo.

The East Missoula Sewer Board, which was established in the mid-90s, was able to negotiate with Missoula to connect to the municipal sewer system without getting annexed for 20 years. “We’re not paying city taxes, but we’re getting city service,” Ainsworth said. “That’s the benefit of it.”

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