As Livingston faces population boom, residents want to weigh in on where city will grow
Friday, August 10, 2018

Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

New streets, available lots and new home construction continue to expand with Livingston’s growing population.

With Livingston on the precipice of unprecedented growth in the next decade, many community members feel the city is inadequately prepared for it.

Since April, more than 170 community members have signed an open letter asking the city to update its growth policy, a document that guides the Planning Board and City Commission in deciding how and where the city will grow.

The issue was again brought to the forefront this week, when the City Commission approved a zoning change to allow housing west of town near the Printing For Less headquarters.

Many community members at the meeting spoke against the change, saying that the city should hold off on development until the growth policy is updated and the community has a chance to weigh in on future land use.

The city’s current growth policy was created in 2004 and updated last year, but the Planning Board, which led the update process, has requested the City Commission fund a new growth policy update.

Yet City Manager Michael Kardoes called the growth policy “the best the city has ever had” and said the city would like to update the policy, but there are other priorities that need funded, including an impact fee study to tell how much the city should charge builders.

“We’re at such a critical juncture in Livingston and Park County,” said Dennis Glick, who works for Future West, a nonprofit focused on building Western communities. “Decisions being made today will affect the community for the next 100 years. If we don’t have a vision for Livingston, developers will.”

“This is the fight of our lives,” said Patricia Grabow, a former city commissioner pushing for an update to the growth policy.


City growth

Livingston’s population has largely remained steady over the past 50 years.

The city had 6,883 residents in 1970 and 6,982 residents in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Today, the city has 7,529 residents, after six years of steady growth.

With neighboring Bozeman seeing a population increase of 18,000 people between 2002 and 2016, many expect Livingston to continue — if not accelerate — its growth.

“If we think that growth isn’t going to spill over to Park County and Livingston, we’re kidding ourselves,” Glick said.

Kardoes said he expects the city to have between 8,800 and 11,000 people in 2025, based on a 2 percent to 5 percent annual population increase, though there have not been any official population studies done.

And with Livingston already facing a housing shortage, that total would likely mean more housing needs to be built in order to accommodate that growth. In addition, commercial growth is also likely to come with more people.

Where will that housing be built? That’s the question that the growth policy is supposed to answer and residents are worried it doesn’t.


Printing For Less

On Tuesday, the City Commission granted a zoning change to a 60-acre parcel of land located next to the Printing For Less headquarters west of town.

The area, already in the city, had been zoned as light industrial but was changed to highway commercial in order to allow housing.

In the city’s growth policy, the area is considered light industrial and was not identified as a place for potential housing.

The commission approved the change, 4-1 with only Commissioner Sarah Sandberg voting no.

Sandberg said the developer’s plans — which were just ideas and not a final development but included 80 living units — seemed “very rudimentary” and the city needs more information before deciding how to proceed.

“We need to develop a comprehensive growth policy that will guide us in this decision,” Sandberg said.

Jen Madgic, who worked for a dozen years as a planner for Helena and Gallatin County and is on the Bozeman Planning Board, said a growth plan is supposed to dictate a community’s vision for growth.

“Is this the right spot for housing?” Madgic said. “Is this where the city of Livingston wants to grow the community? In the big picture, does it look at whether or not this is going to detract from the existing Livingston and downtown businesses? Those are the big picture things that a growth policy through a public process should really take a look at and make sure a city is being looked at comprehensively, instead of piecemeal.”

Madgic said a zoning change like the one the City Commission approved to allow housing really should take community input.

“If you think about housing and people living there, it’s kind of a big deal in that it requires the community looking at any area differently,” Madgic said.

Kardoes said that with highdensity housing potentially coming next to PFL, he has identified land next to the parcel that was zoned, which is currently county land and includes a truck stop, as an area the city will likely annex in the future for in-fill development.

But the growth policy makes no intention of expanding in that direction.

“We never perceived that as a new growth area, out to the west. That’s just the area where PFL was,” Planning Board member Adam Stern said. “PFL just said they want to do their industrial thing and there was nothing else out there. It’s not an ideal place for growth, and there were never any plans for growth. That’s why it’s not on the map.”

Instead, the only areas for residential growth were on the north side of the railroad tracks. Commercial expansion was considered along U.S. Highway 89 east and south of town.

“Given that PFL has changed their mind, it’s maybe time to revisit that,” Stern said.


Update process

In Montana, a growth policy is supposed to be updated every five years. Livingston’s policy was not updated from 2004 until 2017.

Stern, a former city commissioner, said the board started work on an update around 2010, but last year felt an update to the city’s growth policy was needed, so the city wouldn’t get into any legal trouble. Stern said the board worked to get a quick update through that addressed a few key issues, including updates to park land dedication rules and annexation of the Green Acres subdivision.

“It’s not enormous, huge or comprehensive, but it has all the things we wanted to get down in writing,” Stern said.

But the Planning Board realized the update wasn’t what it should be and sent a request to the City Commission for a full comprehensive report, which would likely cost between $60,000 and $80,000, in January.

“We did a ton of research, but the works needs to be done by professional planners,” Stern said. “It just turns out to be too much for citizen volunteers.”

In fact, the updated growth plan had public input from only one citizen: Grabow.

Stern said there wasn’t much public input, despite the meetings being public.

“We’d been working on this for quite some time — it’s not like it was developed in a vacuum,” Stern said.

But since then, citizens have expressed a desire to weigh in on the policy and Stern said that would be a benefit.

“We need professional consultants to do research, dive into the numbers and hear what it is the community wants,” Stern said.


What’s lacking?

The open letter asking for a new growth policy signed by more than 170 residents identified seven main problems with the current growth policy, most of which had to do with outdated and unclear statements and data, as well as the usability of the document. For example, the document does not have a timetable or table of contents that would help inform citizens how to navigate the document.

If a new policy is adopted, what changes should be made? That’s a question that the community should answer, said Michelle Uberuaga, executive director of the Park County Environmental Council.

“It’s becoming clear there’s going to be a lot of growth in our community in the near future, and we want to have a plan for how we want to grow,” Uberuaga said.

Uberuaga, who was one of the first people to sign the open letter, said she was encouraged by Kardoes saying that a new growth policy is needed.

But she believes it needs to happen soon, with growth on its way.

“We appreciate there’s consensus that a new growth policy is needed,” she said. “We want it to be prioritized.”

Glick said it should be a comprehensive process.

“We need a process of gathering info, statistics and trying to bring the community on the same page,” Glick said. “And then in a meaningful way bring everyone together to decide what our future vision is.”

Grabow has more concrete points: The city needs to grow in a circle, the city needs to hire a master’s degree-level urban planner and economist, the city should not expand into wildlife corridors or wetlands.

Kardoes said it’s unclear where the funding for a growth policy would come from, though he’s open to working with outside groups to develop funding for the policy.

“We have a growth policy. The city would love to get an updated one too — it’s just funding,” Kardoes said. “We have other fundamental documents we also need.”

Glick said an investment is worth it in the long run to have a nice community.

“It’s not a big sacrifice to pay to decide what we want to be when we grow up,” he said. “We pay now or we pay later.”