Small communities outside Missoula grapple with growth, change
Lolo, Frenchtown, East Missoula and Bonner have seen rapid population growth, added pressure
Devin Jackson wants to see his small community of Lolo get a new school. The current one is an aging jumble of buildings built into a steep hillside a few steps away from the busy five-lane highway that cuts through the middle of town. As chairman of the Lolo Community Council, he echoes the sentiments of many in Lolo when he says the school is critical to the future.
“The one thing right now I hear most from people in Lolo is the school,” he said. “They are aware that these facilities are run down and need an upgrade.”
In Lolo, an unincorporated mountain town of about 4,000 people a few miles south of Missoula, the school is the heart of the community. As in many small towns, it serves as both a physical gathering space for events and also provides a more intangible bond over shared concerns and aspirations. What Lolo residents don’t have right now is enough funding to build a new school. However, if the town keeps growing the way it has been, they may get their wish of building a new facility away from the road and perhaps a little closer to the beautiful Bitterroot River that runs nearby.
The fast pace of economic growth and rising housing prices in Missoula, a small city geographically bounded by mountains on nearly every side, is causing development and population growth to spill over into outlying small towns where many residents are grappling with how to preserve their unique rural lifestyles in the face of drastic change.
The communities of Lolo, Frenchtown, East Missoula and Bonner – all small towns within a 15-minute drive of Missoula - each have different identities, but all face an influx of people in search of more affordable housing. The populations of all four of those small unincorporated towns have doubled since 2000, according to U.S. Census data.
Frenchtown is a few miles west of town and is intersected by Interstate 90. It has a gas station, a small grocery store, a clinic and several other businesses, but has a very rural feel. East Missoula is the closest to Missoula’s urban core, and is bisected by Highway 200. Because it has a sewer system, it features high-density apartments, a bar and restaurant and several other businesses. Bonner, also known as Bonner-West Riverside or Bonner-Milltown (depending on which geographic boundary you’re using), is a few miles farther east and is the site of a former logging mill, which has now been redeveloped into a light industrial site.
As they face inevitable population growth, heavier traffic, higher housing prices and more pressure on infrastructure, community leaders are trying to plan for their future so they don’t end up overrun by a wave of Missoula’s outward expansion without any say in how it happens.
The situation presents opportunities and challenges. Can the surrounding communities capitalize on Missoula’s sprawl for economic benefit while still maintaining affordability for those who already live there? It’s a difficult question, and the Missoulian recently sat down with community stakeholders in all four towns for discussions on the topic.
Several key common themes emerged as residents spoke about the future of these small outlying communities. The issues on the tops of residents’ minds include zoning, roads, sewers, housing prices, economic development and schools.
Specifically, they are grappling with whether zoning is a good idea or how to do it so it’s tailored to the community and how sewer infrastructure allows higher density housing and development and the pros and cons that go with that.
They want to figure out how to avoid pricing out longtime residents on a fixed income as housing prices rise, and how to deal with increased pressure on infrastructure and government services like road plowing and emergency response.
They also are trying to increase the safety and visual appeal of the highways and interstates that cut through each town.
Last, many believe it’s crucially important to keep and maintain schools as the lifeblood of the community. Or, in the case of East Missoula, residents would like to perhaps bring back a school that was closed years ago.
Everyone agrees that growth is coming, but they don’t agree on how fast it will happen or how it will shape the community.
Housing prices in these outlying communities are rising significantly, but nowhere near the 32 percent increase in median home sales price that Missoula has seen since the turn of the century. These towns don’t have enough employers to support all the people living there, so they are increasingly becoming so-called “bedroom” communities, where workers commute to jobs in Missoula.
Michele Landquist, a former county commissioner and longtime Lolo resident, estimates 90 percent of people in town work in Missoula.
“It used to be, you couldn’t make a quick trip to the store without chit-chatting with everybody and their brother,” she said. “Now the friendliness with people is kind of few and far between unless you’ve been here a while. It’s becoming more and more of a bedroom community of Missoula. People just want to get home after work.”
All four towns have had housing prices rise along with a steady influx of new neighbors recently. According to the Missoula County planning office, single-family home building permits have spiked in in the last year in all four areas.
In Lolo, 54 new houses were approved between August 2015 and November of 2017. That may not sound like much, but it’s rapid growth for a town of roughly 4,000 people.
When Jennifer Schultz and her husband moved to Lolo 11 years ago, they were the first people to build a house on their street. Since then, they’ve seen 20 more houses built and those houses are selling for $100,000 more than Shultz paid. She knows most of those people work in Missoula and live in Lolo because the housing is cheaper, but she hopes they will also become engaged on what happens in Lolo.
“I would like to see more involvement on an upswing of people participating,” she said.
In Frenchtown, housing is a hot commodity.
“Three years ago I had 20 houses I couldn’t sell,” said real estate agent George Sherwood. “And only within the last two years I’m selling houses within 30 days. Prices have gone up 15-20 percent in two years.”
“There’s not a lot of affordable housing, except trailer courts,” said Frenchtown Superintendent Randy Cline.
Frenchtown is now dealing with the same problems that have afflicted Missoula in the last five years, including fast-rising housing prices and stagnating wages. The Housing Affordability Index, which measures how difficult it is for a person earning median income to afford a median priced home, has fallen every year since 2010 in Missoula, according to the Missoula Organization of Realtors.
Unlike East Missoula and Lolo, Bonner and Frenchtown do not have their own sewer systems. That means that growth is checked, because only a certain number of dwellings can be built per acre using septic systems due to pollution concerns. Even a grocery store, were it to serve any type of fresh coffee, would be illegal without a sewer connection in Bonner, according to Bridges.
Bonner currently only has septic systems, and Frenchtown also does not have a sewer system, which many locals believe preserves the rural integrity of the town by limiting high-density housing. But limiting development also means stunting economic growth. It’s a Catch-22 that may be made moot if either of those places are annexed by the City of Missoula.
“Not having a sewer is like a filter (on population growth) on its own,” said Bonner-Milltown Community Council member Kali Orton. “We moved out here because we wanted to live in a place that had a rural feel to it with friendly, independent people, not a cookie-cutter subdivision. We want to maintain affordability and that strong community feel.”
Apartment complexes, for example, have sprung up nearby in East Missoula since the sewer came along.
“East Missoula has particularly changed when the city sewer came out 10 or 12 years ago,” said Dick Ainsworth, the chairman of the East Missoula Community Council. “It really changed and development started taking place.”
Lee Bridges said that East Missoula’s population has increased by 50 percent because of the sewer.
Lolo has its own water and sewer district, which allows for higher density growth. There, upscale townhouses and new businesses like the Lolo Peak Brewery have sprung up in the past few years.
In places where there aren’t sewer systems, most residents who spoke to the Missoulian cautiously agreed that they didn’t want sewers installed to preserve the rural lifestyle.
“People don’t move to Frenchtown to live in an apartment complex,” Delys explained.
“To have a senior on a fixed income absorb a (rural special improvement district tax) for a sewer system would be detrimental to people here,” explained Debbie Lester, a Frenchtown School District trustee.
That’s another reason why residents in Frenchtown don’t want to be annexed by Missoula.
“With annexation, taxes go higher,” George Sherwood, the realtor, explained. “And then you’re not going to have a rural environment. If they get the sewer to one of those ranches, you’re talking 1,000 homes.”
He and many of his fellow Frenchtown residents believe that the Wye area, closer to Missoula, will experience more rapid growth because it has a sewer system.
“Growth is coming, and I don’t mind that,” Lester said. “What I do mind is unplanned growth. I look forward to when we have industry back at the mill site, so we can have families who can live and work in their town. That makes a big difference.”
Devin Jackson, the chairman of the Lolo Community Council, said the biggest complaint from people he’s heard over the years is the “not very appealing” look of Highway 93 that cuts through town.
“It’s detrimental towards us,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we’d like to see done to improve that section, from speed limits to landscaping.”
Most people who spoke to the Missoulian don’t mind the Interstate 90 that cuts through Frenchtown, because there are underpasses. But in East Missoula and Bonner, folks would like to increase the safety and beauty of the Highway 200 corridor.
“Right now it’s a wide open free-for-all,” said Dick Ainsworth, the chairman of the East Missoula Community Council. “Having a highway go through a small country town, it’s extremely dangerous. We all feel the goal of attracting businesses would be helped if we could get the highway improved through there. The problem is of course there’s no federal money and everybody in the world word wants federal funding.”
From highways to housing to zoning to sewers, there are myriad questions facing the residents of these small communities.
Mike Grunow, who owns the Lolo Creek Steakhouse and has lived there since 1971, reflected many of the thoughts of small-town residents when he spoke about the future.
“For me, growth is coming and what you want to do is make sure we do it the way we want it to happen,” he said. “I think it’s a great place, almost like a canvas, for the people who want to take charge and make it happen. It’s going to take a lot of younger blood.”
(This story is part of the Montana Gap series produced collaboratively by Western Montana journalists, High Country News and the Solutions Journalism Network. The series examines how small towns between Montana’s growing urban areas are overcoming challenges in order to improve their futures. Additional stories will publish in coming weeks.)