Tasked with figuring out how, where and when Billings will grow during the coming years, Candi Millar is seeking help — from up to 109,058 of her fellow Billings residents.
Millar, director of the city’s Planning and Community Development Department, has spent more than a month speaking with and seeking input from Billings groups, including the NextGen organization for business leaders under the age of 40 that’s part of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
With help from staff — as well as the public — Millar is writing the city’s growth policy. The first round of small-group presentations, which have been going on for about six weeks, will be followed by a public meeting at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 22 at the Billings Public Library.
By August 2015, Millar will describe and map potential growth scenarios and will have the county portion of the growth plan complete. By January 2016, she’ll have quantified the impacts of expected growth and selected preferred scenario elements. In May 2016, the preferred development option should be complete.
Focus groups will have input at every step of the process, and a public meeting will be held at each of the plan’s six junctures.
Before each hourlong public presentation, Millar distributes a card that asks attendees this open-ended question: What is important to you in terms of how we grow and where we grow?
Hearing from the public
So far, she’s heard certain items on people’s wish lists for growth — affordable housing, mixed-use neighborhoods, access to schools, complete streets, attractive entryways, parks, safe neighborhoods and infill development, which involves developing or improving plots of property already inside city boundaries.
A few figures highlight the need for a plan that accommodates at least steady growth. Even at its current growth rate — an average of 1.5 percent per year — Billings’ population will increase by more than 40,000 people in 20 years, to about 151,000. Two percent growth would push that number to about 180,000, and a 3 percent growth rate would push Billings’ population to more than 250,000 people by 2035.
More than 7,000 housing units — from about 39,300 to about 46,300 — have been added between census years 2000 and 2010. Members of an aging population “are a little shy of buying homes. They don’t have that same security in terms of building equity, and they may have lost a lot during the recession,” Millar said. “We’re seeing more renters, and many of them prefer townhomes and apartments.”
Billings itself is bigger, and there are more ways to get around. It’s grown from 32.8 square miles in 2000 to 42 square miles by 2010. During the same period, 65 miles of streets have been added — from 458.1 to 523.4.
In Yellowstone County, the median age has increased by about a full year — from 36.8 in 2000 to 37.5 in 2010. During the decade, the county’s median household income was up an impressive 37 percent, from about $35,000 in 2000 to about $48,000 in 2010.
“That’s not just inflation and the minimum wage going up. We now have some good, high-paying jobs in a diverse and stable economy,” Millar said. “Years ago, the economy was centered on agriculture and the extractive industries. Now our biggest sector is medical. We’re not the rural cow town we used to be.”
John Brewer, president and CEO of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, noted that traditional business sectors — including agriculture, health care and banking — show no signs of slowing down locally. If the XL Pipeline is constructed with an on-ramp in Baker, "We'll continue to see job growth in Yellowstone County," Brewer said.
The challenge, he said, will be how quickly "other progressive Montana communities" grow, he said. Missoula recently passed a bond issue to support that community's trail system.
"Right now our community has the opportunity to grow in a way that will lure Millennials and young families here, and to do that we need a thriving quality of life," he said. "There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Billings, but also in western Montana communities."
Air service to and from Bozeman "is exploding," he noted, and one way to keep Billings ahead of the competition is to grow the Magic City's hub city reputation for conventions and sporting events.
Brewer said one of the biggest challenges to the city's growth could be last month's failure of the public safety levy.
"Kalispell, Missoula and Bozeman are all positioned well to see explosive growth," Brewer said. "It's important to stay ahead of growth needs — roads, public safety, infrastructure. We have a tough battle, and so we have to stay aggressive."
As she develops the city’s growth plan — the working title is “Billings Beyond” — Millar said she’s focusing on growth scenarios and how growth could impact city services and quality-of-life considerations, including traffic, density and neighborhood shopping opportunities.
Billings has at least four ways to grow, in combination or with growth emphasis on one area. Those are north of the city limits, between Alkali Creek and
Rehberg Ranch; urban renewal in South Billings; growth in open space farmland southwest and southeast of the city limits; and managed growth in Billings’ West End.
Each potential growth area has advantages and disadvantages. The northern area will one day be served by the Inner Belt Loop, which will make trips downtown or to West End shopping quicker. But extending water and sewer services uphill to those neighborhoods will be expensive.
Higher density in Billings’ central district is a less expensive option, and the city’s Limits of Annexation map shows multiple properties ripe for infill development. But smaller lot sizes aren’t for everybody, Millar said.
Some of those neighborhoods are good candidates for mixed use, which encourages neighborhood shopping and more walking and cycling. A coming example, she said, is a 100-unit development on the back side of West Park Promenade, which will place residents right next to places they can shop or even work.
“A lot of people find that attractive, because transportation costs go down when you don’t use your car much,” she said. “That is emerging for your age group,” she told the young businesspeople, “as well as Abbies,” an acronym for aging baby boomers.
Millar said she and her staff are working to determine the city’s infill potential.
“We have two urban renewal districts, and we’re trying to focus redevelopment there,” she said. “We want to figure out how many people and how many businesses can get into those at a comfortable density.”
The East Billings Urban Renewal District has been working to revitalize that entryway into Billings and convince property owners to voluntarily annex into the city. The other urban renewal district, South Billings Boulevard, seeks to improve infrastructure deficiencies in an area that has seen significant commercial expansion.
Steve Arveschoug, executive director of Big Sky Economic Development Authority, said the look and feel of a community — particularly its downtown — is an important consideration for companies considering a move here, or even an expansion.
"It is fundamental to our continued growth — do we have a vibrant, attractive, growing downtown?" he said. "Are we a community that continues to invest in itself? If we are, we are a community that will attract talent. New young professionals want to be in a community that is vibrant, that invests in itself and its amenities. It's the cool factor, and we have to do that if we are going to meet current and future workplace needs."
Growing out, or growing up
No matter which direction Billings expands, density is an important consideration for planners and for residents. Billings density ranges from 15,000 square foot lots in the Ironwood subdivision — about three lots per acre — to neighborhoods like Millar’s, the North Elevation, which has six or seven dwelling units per acre.
“The higher the density, the less cost to serve people,” she said. “Service levels are often related to density. You can also get more taxes in a denser area, but there are a lot of people who like living on large lots. It’s all about choices. Infill is a very efficient use of public funds, but it doesn’t give everything to everybody.”
The open spaces on Billings’ southern flank could in theory be developed — but they’re among Montana’s most productive farmland.
“Some people feel that’s a poor direction for us to grow,” Millar said. “We are in an era where we want to know where our food comes from. Can you achieve the goal of producing food that can be eaten locally? That is a consideration.”
Many times during her public outreach, Millar has heard from people that they enjoy walkable neighborhoods — and they’d like Billings to have more of them.
“We are closer in our preferences to the 1920s than the 1970s,” she said.
Conscious of the costs of expansion, planners and other city leaders invite developers to share the cost of growth, Millar said.
“If they put 1,000 additional trips per day on an intersection, they pay a proportionate share to improve the intersection,” she said, including signals, turn lanes and crosswalks.
Subdivisions are not brought into the city limits if homeowners choose to remain outside, she said.
“It’s been the policy of the City Council not to force annexation,” she said. “If they are in the red (the lots on the Limits of Annexation map that city leaders prefer for annexation), we say, ‘Oh joy, come on in.’”
Millar believes Billings' future will probably have something similar to what we have now, with more attention paid to developing the area between Rehberg Ranch and Alkali Creek.
“We can accommodate the (projected) population increase, but we don’t have any control over how the county grows, because they don’t need water and sewer. I think we will see growth in the county around us, unless we see a change in the county growth policy. We want to make sure they have similar (street and development) standards to ours.
“We will grow,” Millar said. “The question is where and how?”