The city of Livingston has completed its growth policy, a comprehensive document meant to help plan the city’s trajectory as it continues to grow.
City commissioners in Livingston approved the growth policy earlier this week. The 550-page document, years in the making, serves to guide decisions about development and public investments for city leaders.
Livingston last updated its growth policy in 2017 with the aim of doing a more comprehensive look at the town’s growth soon after. Work began on the current growth policy in late 2019.
Like many towns in Montana, Livingston is grappling with shifting economic drivers, a high demand for housing and an influx of newcomers.
City and county planners, those on the city planning board, and members of nonprofits Park County Environmental Council and the Park County Community Foundation celebrated the new growth policy on Thursday with a flight over Livingston and Park County.
The pilot, Bruce Gordon, founded EcoFlight, a nonprofit out of Aspen, Colorado, that aims to promote environmentalism through an aerial perspective. He offered the rides for free.
“It’s great to not just look to have growth just happen to you, but to plan for it and care for it and get everybody’s input,” Gordon said.
During two 45-minute flights over Livingston and into Paradise Valley on Thursday “guides,” Max Hjortsberg, with the Park County Environmental Council, and Lawson Moorman, a county planner, spoke of the history of the valley, discussed the growth policy and issues facing the county.
Taya Cromley, who sits on both the city and the county planning board, said the growth policy is about ensuring the town grows sustainably.
“We’re acknowledging that we need more affordable housing, but that we want to do it in a way that’s responsible,” Cromley said.
With rapid changes afoot, Livingston residents are worried about the future of the town.
“People here care an extraordinary amount about their community,” said Mathieu Menard, Livingston’s deputy director of planning.
The growth policy garnered about 1,500 public comments during eight public meetings and a community survey.
“It’s very rare to have towns that care this much about planning, about what’s going on and about protecting the town,” Menard said.
The most pressing issues facing Livingston residents are infilling development rather than contributing to urban sprawl, addressing the town’s lack of housing, investing in the downtown area and preserving the Yellowstone River and other natural resources.
Housing is one of Livingston’s top priorities. Conservative estimates, based on Livingston’ growth pattern, suggest the town could reach a population of about 11,000 over the next two decades, according to the growth policy. Most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau put the population in 2019 at 7,801.
But if the town continues to grow at its current rate, that population may be much higher than those conservative estimates, Menard said.
Similar to Bozeman, housing prices in Livingston have ballooned over the past year as supply fails to meet demand. While still relatively affordable compared to Bozeman prices, the Livingston market is beginning to price out residents.
The median price for a home in Livingston was around $274,000 in early 2020. As of May, the median price has shot up more than 56% to $429,922, according to data from the Gallatin Association of Realtors.
With homes more expensive than ever, rentals are few and far between. About one in five houses in Livingston are seasonally empty, or used as vacation rentals and second homes, according to data from the growth policy.
“There’s almost no rental inventory,” Menard said.
The town has seen labor shortages, exacerbated by the pandemic, but the county environmental council says the housing crisis is at the root of the issue with employees being pushed out of town due to the cost or lack of housing.
Livingston in response created an affordable housing committee — in partnership with the HRDC — to address the lack of housing in town. Menard said the partnership is one step toward implementing what the growth policy outlines.
The city is encouraging development within the city limits and started to allow secondary residential units, like mother-in-law houses or cabins called “accessory dwelling units” on properties, Menard said.
The city is also working to update it’s plan on trails and transportation and is looking to add another railroad crossing — either an overpass or underpass — on the north end of town.
The next step for the city is working with the county on its extra-territorial jurisdiction, a 2-mile buffer surrounding the city in an attempt to keep residential and commercial growth sustainable.
Park County has few zoning regulation and some environmental groups are worried unchecked development could threaten wildlife and natural resources.
After a two-year push to complete the policy, Menard is hopeful the growth policy won’t be “collecting dust” on a city hall shelf.
Whether the 21 goals outlined in growth policy — ranging from revitalizing the downtown area to creating a climate action plan — are actually implemented remains to be seen, he said.
“It will be a strategic planning process with the City Commission. In the end, they are our elected representatives and they’re the ones who are empowered to to determine how that gets implemented,” Menard said.
Cromley is optimistic that the growth policy will result in real change and said she’s already seen city and county officials reference the document during meetings.
“People are already saying, ‘you know, our growth policy pushes this, or wants this or says that,’ so I really think it’s going to be this great tool that people refer to and actually do use,” Cromley said.