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Decoded: Missoula Form Based Code

We Read Missoula Form Based Code (So You Don’t Have To)*

The City of Missoula adopted Form Based Code for the area formerly known as the Mullan Area. It’s now called the Sx͏ʷtpqyen – pronounced S-wh-tip-KAYN- Neighborhoods. If you’re looking for the Cliff Notes for the City of Missoula and Missoula County Traditional Neighborhood Development Form-Based Code (FBC), look no further. If the page-turner is already queued up in your book club, please note that there will be spoilers ahead.

The Sx͏ʷtpqyen Neighborhoods are heralded as the part of the answer to a critical housing crisis in the Missoula valley. Estimates suggest the area could support 6,000 housing units. Many of those won’t fall into classic single family home style. And while that’s a tough sell for some residents, higher density housing would also release the building pressure on the local market.

The debate over density, development, and the dawn of a new neighborhood wages on, even as the area quickly takes shape. But what is Form Based Code? Why is it such a hot button issue?

What is Form Based Code?

FBC lays out a blueprint for development. FBC guides what can, and what can’t, be built in a specific area – and it isn’t separate from traditional zoning.

In fact, FBC is zoning. In the Sx͏ʷtpqyen area, the Missoula County website notes that, “the FBC will be stand alone zoning regulation, not in addition to the current Missoula County Zoning Regulation.” FBC replaces old school zoning regulations with a new standard. It’s a standard that focuses on guiding the form of the buildings, instead of focusing on the use of the land.

Form Based Code adds parameters based on building design standards such as heights and setbacks, architectural standards such as materials and aesthetics and streetscape standards such as signage, landscaping and sidewalks.
Where traditional zoning looks at an area and dictates uses and building standards, form based is less about use and more about making sure the architecture, scale and streetscape of an area are cohesive.

By focusing on the form (instead of the use) of the buildings, FBC is meant to create thought-out neighborhoods. Instead of a code that allows a lot of different building types with the same general purpose to spring up in an area, structures developed under FBC must all complement one another.

It’s not all Stepford housing with exactly similar requirements. Neither is it a “hodge podge of buildings” as bemoaned by some residents.

Neighborhood Types
Where is the Sxwtpqyen / Former Mullan Area and What are the Neighborhood Unit Plans?

For those unfamiliar with the area, the former Mullan Area rezoned space is 685 acres on the west side of the city. It’s primarily accessible from Reserve Street and Interstate 90 (as well as a few offshoot roads through nearby neighborhoods). Mullan Road is the main thoroughfare that runs along the southern boundary of the area encompassed in the FBC.

The Missoula International Airport buffers the west side of the area. To the east is higher density housing. West Broadway, another busy Missoula road and industrial corridor, is the northern boundary.

Hellgate Elementary sits on the eastern boundary of the plan area. While there are more childcare facilities near the Sxwtpqyen Neighborhoods, note that that Missoula has waitlists for childcare throughout the city.

Neighborhoods

In the Sx͏ʷtpqyen area, “Neighborhood Plans” define what goes where when it comes to new development. The FBC says, “The Neighborhood Unit Plan establishes the general location, size and type of neighborhood, as well as other important elements that define the overall structure of the Mullan Area.”

The intention is for the area to have unique spaces and character while remaining walkable. On the interior are denser, mixed-use gathering spaces. On the outer edges are more private, sparsely populated places.

Within these 685 acres, four main neighborhood types (and standard size) are:

  • Town Center (60 – 160 acres)
  • Community Center (50 – 160 acres)
  • Crossroads Center (80 – 180 acres)
  • Workplace (45 – 80 acres)
Open Space, Airport Zone, and Ag

Each of these four areas is required to have at least one “open space” centered in the neighborhood. There is another rule for a playground as well, though there is no centering specifics for the playground. There are more guidelines to observe for open spaces in the area – contact a Sterling CRE advisor for greater detail.

And don’t forget: you’re in Montana. Agricultural preservation is incentivized. Irrigation is required for incentives, but the payoffs are incrementally greater allowances of mixed-use and live work spaces.

Working around the Missoula International Airport Approach and Departure Area (EADA Zone) has clear parameters. Within the EADA Zone, most dwellings per acre whittles down to 4.  There is some flexibility for shifting housing into nearby spaces. A restriction on schools and hospitals exists in the EADA Zone. In fact, the plan pushes for no uses that would attract crowds in the area (makes sense to us!).

This is a general overview of the Neighborhood regulations – for specific information (of which there is plenty), contact Matt Mellott.

And if you’re not familiar with the Sx͏wtpqyen Neighborhoods/former Mullan Area, you might be wondering: where are all the roads? Next up is a critical hinge point for development in this area: the BUILD Grant.

If You BUILD It….

Master planning and development in the Sx͏ʷtpqyen/former Mullan area dovetails with another critical piece of the puzzle: the BUILD Grant. 

BUILD stands for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development.  Federally funded and highly competitive, BUILD Grants develop transportation infrastructure across the US. 

And the Sx͏ʷtpqyen/former Mullan area, identified as a key area for Missoula’s growth, lacked a crucial element: complete streets and trails. Without this access, development would be challenging. Missoula County applied for the BUILD Grant to build out needed infrastructure into the area. 

But, Missoula County received $13 million in BUILD grant funding in late 2019 – short of the $23 million that was originally requested. Because funding came in lower than expected, only portions of the initial project are in development. 

In early 2021, the project plans came in at 90% completed. The project website projects that construction will start sometime in 2021, creating the grid along which new housing, retail, and workplaces could be built. 

The BUILD Grant project creates potential for $2.6 billion in new taxable value from a variety of properties. The project creates three miles of roads, nearly 4 miles of trail, and a half mile of stream restoration/flood control. Another key component of the project is connecting Broadway Street with Mullan Road with these new roads. 

Missoula County continues to seek additional funding for the area. A recent bid for an additional $10 million in BUILD funds was rejected, though county officials expressed confidence in future applications. Impact fees may also be used to clear the delta in funding for infrastructure improvements. 

For more detail on Missoula Form Based Code, contact Matt Mellott.

* You’ll probably have to, actually. This post is provided for informational purposes only.