In recent weeks, Candi Millar, Billings' planning and community development director, has been putting pencil to paper to figure out how much it will cost — and how much the city can make — if it expands north or west or simply fills in the empty lots within city limits.
On Wednesday before a crowd of more than 75 people, Millar revealed the various growth scenarios calculated in each area for the high-density, low-density and mixed-density approaches that a majority of participants in the Billings Beyond plan for growth say they prefer.
It turns out there aren’t enough in-town lots to accommodate the 50,000 people the city is expected to add over the next 20 years. And while intuitively one might think that existing services might make the infill growth scenario less costly, Millar discovered that’s not necessarily so.
While total costs are highest for developing the north growth area — around the planned-for Inner Belt Loop — the least-expensive option is for mixed density (12-20 units per acre) in the West End.
And there was this finding: Figuring in anticipated revenues produced by each development’s expected property taxes, the greatest return on investment is to promote high-density development in the northern neighborhoods, generally north of Billings Logan International Airport.
Although it would cost an estimated $81.3 million to build schools, parks, branch libraries, joint fire and police coverage, and new arterials and collector streets, the return on investment for that scenario is 93 percent, the highest of the seven calculated.
In descending order, other returns on investment are:
- Mixed density in the north, 88.6 percent.
- High density in the west, 87.7 percent.
- Mixed density in the west, 86.1 percent.
- Low density in the north, 82.1 percent.
- Mixed density infill, 78.1 percent.
- Low density west, 74.2 percent.
“None of the alternatives will pay their way,” she said. “Over time they could, but we looked at cost and revenue at build out.”
Millar cautioned that the plan should not be considered a prescription for growth, but a tool that planners, the planning commission and city council can use to encourage development by concentrating services to the areas where they believe that growth can best be accommodated.
“It’s a guide for how we may grow,” she said. “It doesn’t have any strategies or deadlines, but we did lay out a toolbox. If the city council says we want to explore some incentives for infill, we can see a list of tools available.”
The information Millar released Wednesday will be posted on the Billings Beyond website. (Visit www.ci.billings.mt.us, and click on "2016 Growth Policy Update" under the "Services" tab and then "Planning.")
Pursuing the lowest development cost or even the best return on investment may not be the most prudent way to proceed, Millar said.
“I’m not one to say, 'Let’s go for the one with the best return on investment,'” Millar said. “That is mostly high-density growth, and not everybody wants that. What they want is the preferred alternative (mixed density), and in that alternative, the return on investment isn’t bad, and it helps achieve the goals that people identified.”
Those goals, she said, include essential investments (including transportation, public safety, public service), community fabric (strong downtown, attractive entryways), place makers (public spaces, the river and the rims, and farmland preservation), strong neighborhoods, home base (affordable housing and housing choices) and access and mobility.
The costs for each scenario were based on nine key indicators:
- A community park within three miles of every home.
- Walkability, as demonstrated by each home being a mile or less from an elementary school. Millar stressed that not every school envisioned in the plan will be built.
- Joint fire and police station coverage within a five-minute drive.
- Bus routes to serve growth.
- Branch libraries, a cost figured on a per-capita basis.
- New arterial and collector streets.
- Garbage pickup, including drive time from the house to the landfill.
- Property tax and assessment revenues.
- Farmland preservation.
Asked whether the plan will be put to use once it’s adopted by the city council or take its place on a shelf, Millar answered that plans aren’t regulations — they’re plans, tools for municipal governments to use to best accommodate growth.
“Opportunities emerge, and those can change and delay plans,” she said. “The most valuable thing about any plan is that it sets us up to take advantage of things that come our way.”