City starting growth policy update process

City officials are beginning their effort for a new growth policy.

During the Oct. 17 work session, Planning Director Brock Cherry walked City Commissioners through what a growth policy is, is not and his planned timeline.

Cherry started as the planning director in August.

“It’s not a wish list. If we treat it as a wish list, I think your constituents are going to be very disappointed,” Cherry told commissioners. “It’s not about you,” Cherry said of the plan needing to represent broad citizen perspective. “It’s the people’s plan.”

Cherry said he wants to have robust public participation and comment during what he expects will be a two year process.

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The plan will use data analysis and include measurable objectives, Cherry said.

The plan, he said, should represent the community’s consensus on “this is the general direction we’re going.”

During this summer’s budget process, commissioners allocated $300,000 of CARES Act funds for the growth plan process, which includes a consultant in this iteration.

In the 2013 growth policy process, the city employed a comprehensive planner who spearheaded the process. That position has been vacant for years.

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State law requires local governments must review their growth policy every five years.

City staff did a minor review several years ago but city administration did not approve funding for a larger growth policy update over the last decade.

Cherry said the plan will also look at the economic impact of land use decisions.

He said that he wants citizens to know the price tag of certain land uses, since some generate more tax revenue for the city than others and citizens should understand when growth patterns don’t generate enough tax revenue to support infrastructure and city services.

Cherry said he’s been meeting with local agencies for their perspective in developing the request for proposals for a consultant and planning the process.

He said Great Falls Public Schools wants to work with the city on the plan.

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Superintendent Tom Moore told commissioners that in 2017, the district hired a GIS professional to help with redistricting. He said that the district spent a fair amount of money on that process and attempted to implement some of those recommendations.

Moore said that was done in isolation and since the community has seen some growth, the district wants to partner with the city for the growth policy since they need data to forecast their facility needs.

Cherry will present on the growth policy to the Cascade County Commission in November.

Cherry said the commission’s role in the process includes approving the resolution to begin the growth policy and then approve the request for proposal documents, likely in December, open the bid process and award a contract in spring of 2024.

Based on his proposed timeline, Cherry said he hopes to have the new growth policy approved by November 2025.

City Manager Greg Doyon said that part of the delay in starting the new growth policy process was hiring a new planning director after Craig Raymond left in March.

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He said that they’ll work with outside partners, but have to stay in their lane to ensure the city meets it its statutory requirements.

“We’re not going to go down rabbit holes,” Doyon said.

Residents have gotten a taste of growth over the last decade and some like it, some don’t he said, but thinks the community is ready to embrace a discussion about Great Falls’ future.

Mayor Bob Kelly asked Cherry to give commissioners feedback later on how the city did in implementing the 2013 growth policy and whether it was used.

City staff has cited the growth policy criteria in all staff reports to commissioners on land use actions for the last decade.

Commissioner Joe McKenney said he was concerned that the city might inadvertently stop development if people wait on the growth policy.

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Cherry said city staff can chew gum and walk at the same time and will continue processing development applications normally during the process.

Doyon said that during conversations about the proposed public safety levy, he’s often asked why they let the city grow so much.

He said they don’t want to get too far ahead of themselves or slow development.

“I think Great Falls is at a tipping point…in the right direction,” Doyon said.

Commissioner Rick Tryon asked if it would be a total rewrite of the existing plan.

Cherry said that in the planning world, they often refer to this kind of process as an update, but after a decade, it warrants an overhaul.

They’ll use the current plan’s data and cite it to show where the city was, how it’s evolved and the new plan will take on forecasting the next decade.

It’s a living document that needs to reflect today’s needs, Cherry said, “2013 seems like a totally different world. Commissioners come and go. This document is meant to represent the people and be a foundation of where we want to go.”