The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners

Introducing the County Lands Inventory Project

April 20, 2023 Missoula County Commissioners Season 3 Episode 8
Introducing the County Lands Inventory Project
The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners
More Info
The Agenda with the Missoula County Commissioners
Introducing the County Lands Inventory Project
Apr 20, 2023 Season 3 Episode 8
Missoula County Commissioners

In late 2021, the Missoula County commissioners asked the newly formed Department of Lands and Economic Development to inventory and assess the utility of all 260+ county-owned properties. Emily Brock, director of that department, joined the commissioners this week to debut the inventory mapping tool, explain how the parcels are assessed based on six factors, talk about next steps and how the assessment will be used to make decisions.

Follow along with the interactive mapping tool and submit feedback online:

Thank you to Missoula's Community Media Resource for podcast recording support!

Show Notes Transcript

In late 2021, the Missoula County commissioners asked the newly formed Department of Lands and Economic Development to inventory and assess the utility of all 260+ county-owned properties. Emily Brock, director of that department, joined the commissioners this week to debut the inventory mapping tool, explain how the parcels are assessed based on six factors, talk about next steps and how the assessment will be used to make decisions.

Follow along with the interactive mapping tool and submit feedback online:

Thank you to Missoula's Community Media Resource for podcast recording support!

Juanita Vero: [00:00:10] Well, welcome back to Tip of the Spear with your Missoula County commissioners. I'm Juanita Vero and I'm joined here today by my fellow commissioners, Josh Slotnick and Dave Strohmaier. And also today, we're welcoming Emily Brock, director of Lands and Economic Development Department. And we're going to talk about the much anticipated Lands inventory project. So welcome, Emily. Thank you for having me.


Emily Brock: [00:00:32] Good to see you all on this snowy day. Yeah, it's hard to believe yesterday was 65 degrees, but.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:00:37] Here we are. Here we are in April in Montana. So, Emily, could you give us some background on this project?


Emily Brock: [00:00:45] So actually, the idea for this project is not new. We've been kicking around county government for quite a few years. As most of you know, Missoula County has been acquiring and developing a disposing of land to serve residents for over 150 years. Since we first were established, there were two things that happened recently that spurred us into action. The first was that the pandemic housing crisis hit. And so you, the county commission, were united in leveraging county-owned land to increase housing supply like you had with the Trinity Project. You made this call to action formal in the 2022 Housing Action Plan: Breaking Ground, that calls for developing a strategic framework for acquiring and or using county land for affordable housing development. The second other impetus was we finally had the capacity in our county government to tackle a project like this. You guys recently created the Department of Land and Economic Development, which we cheekily call "LED," to implement strategic initiatives that enhance community vitality, associated with economic growth, as well as guide land development and redevelopment efforts for county properties. So you folks, the Commission desiring the broadest approach possible, merged the housing call to action with several other important county-led initiatives and assigned LED to conduct a holistic inventory and assessment of every county-owned property as its first initiative. And we've done that. We have reviewed over 260 parcels and work with the GIS department to create an interactive mapping tool to display all properties in a holistic and concise format.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:02:19] Speaking of those 260 parcels, some folks out there might be wondering how is it that Missoula County ended up with all this property in the first place? From what you've discovered going through this process, just generally describe and characterize the genesis of how these came into county ownership.


Emily Brock: [00:02:37] The truth is they came into county ownership for many, many, many different reasons. Some were very strategic and are necessary for the use of county operations. Some were forced on us by legal ruling and some were the county sort of saving the day for other entities and agreeing to take on ownership of land. So and that's just the beginning of the list.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:03:02] Sure.


Josh Slotnick: [00:03:03] So, Emily, what are the opportunities and challenges with this project?


Emily Brock: [00:03:07] The project is challenging, of course, because it attempts to weigh competing values, all of which are very dear to our residents: growth management, housing affordability, climate resiliency, historic preservation, outdoor recreation, conservation, good governance. The list goes on and on and on. They're all values that our community has stated time and time again are important to our well-being. And so applying a uniform analysis to the usefulness of land that balances these ideals will honestly likely look different for each resident, depending on the lens they're looking through. And counties are charged very specifically in statute to deal with the things that were previously mentioned protecting community health, promoting orderly development, enhancing culture and recreation, all the stuff. But these responsibilities are essentially in state law to be accomplished through four general powers bestowed on county governments. Essentially, those powers are: sue and be sued, make contracts, levy and collect taxes, purchase, hold and dispose of land and property. So as you can see, this is exactly the kind of difficult but important task that has been assigned to us in our state. Constitution and statute made even more difficult because land is a finite resource, especially scarce in our geographically constrained valley. So emotions are sometimes running high and competition can sometimes be fierce. And the Larchmont proposal was a good early example of the triggering nature of the task at hand and how methodology is so important to public trust. Residents felt very, very strongly on both sides of that debate, and the truth is they were all right. And for those of you who don't know, in 2021, a private developer approached the county to propose a large land trade in exchange for the 152 acre Larchmont Golf course, the county would obtain 152 acre property to build a golf course on off Highway 93, south of Missoula.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:04:54] And we own the golf course. It's Missoula County's golf course.


Emily Brock: [00:04:56] Yes, the commission ultimately shelved the proposal and directed staff to proceed with the already occurring assessment of county properties to holistically determine if there's an opportunity to use them for more public benefit. So this challenge is exactly what makes the holistic approach and the mapping tool. We've created such an opportunity for thoughtful, transparent and ultimately more civil discussion around our shared values with less misinformation and fragmented debate.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:05:22] That's usually what we try to do best: Fragmented debate.


Juanita Vero: [00:05:27] And misinformation.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:05:28] Yes. How could I forget? 


Josh Slotnick: [00:05:29] When looking at each property, what sort of assessments or evaluations were used and how are the metrics determined?


Emily Brock: [00:05:37] We worked very hard, really striving to be as objective as possible when choosing and evaluating factors while seeking to honor all the previous engagement and planning efforts that articulated community values. Staff selected six areas that together encompass all the factors that we found relevant at this time to paint a full picture in a concise and digestible format that reflects community values. So those six areas are topographic built environment, administrative conservation and recreation. So just to really kind of tie it all together, we had all those values that I listed that are important to the community in state law. [00:06:18] It's clear that this is our jobs to balance all these values. The community knows it's our job to balance all these values. We then looked at all the kind of data factors and we put them into six areas that together paint a full picture of the parcel. In those six areas, we gave each parcel a score from 0 to 3 zero being the least restrictive to new use and new development and three being the most restrictive to new use and new development. So thought of another way if a parcel had a score of zero across the board for those six areas topographic built environment, administrative conservation, recreation and cultural. If [00:06:59] it had a zero across the board, it would be very, very low hanging fruit for new use and new development.


Josh Slotnick: [00:07:05] It'd be like the BUILD grant area.


Emily Brock: [00:07:05] ...except we're talking about county only.


Josh Slotnick: [00:07:08] Yeah, I was just coming up with a piece of land that was flat. It wasn't actively being used for any other economic activity. It didn't have obvious conservation or cultural value or recreational value. It was just prime to build on.


Emily Brock: [00:07:21] Yup. And then if it had a three in something, meaning it was highly valuable to the community in that area, it's unlikely that it would be recommended for redevelopment or new use.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:07:32] So could we take something that's within a stone's throw from where we're sitting right here, the courthouse block? I suspect that's that's an example where it's probably not in the cards, but on a number of metrics that that that's going to be redeveloped.


Emily Brock: [00:07:47] No, that is not in the cards to be redeveloped.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:07:50] It could be a really nice McMenamin's.


Emily Brock: [00:07:53] The County courthouse is not likely to be recommended for new use. It was built in 1908, designed by R.J. Gibson, famous architect, that a building would have a high score, a three for culture which deals with our historic pieces, would also have a high score for built environment which deals with if there would need to be demolition on the property. Obviously, if you were going to build something there, you'd have to have a big stone building that needed to be rebuilt or demolished and it would have a three for administrative purposes because of course the county government uses that building of the 260 parcels.


Juanita Vero: [00:08:30] What are we really looking at? Because I bet there's a lot of threes.


Josh Slotnick: [00:08:34] I was gonna say one of the things I really like about this scale is that it's descriptive, not prescriptive. You're not saying, Oh, you should build here or you shouldn't build there just accurately describing reality. It doesn't mean if there is an impediment, we might decide to go past that impediment if we chose to. You're just describing what the lay of the land literally looks like.


Emily Brock: [00:08:55] Yep, that's for phase one. So phase one of this project is just to get the tool established, publish it, get feedback from the community on the scores themselves, on the assessment areas, those six areas. And in the narrative there is a list of questions that we're really going to dive into in phase two. And so what I would like from the community is to let us know what else needs to be in that list of questions, because in phase two, we are going to have recommendations for not only policy recommendations for how we tackle redevelopment projects or even how we manage our land, but also maybe something about specific parcels.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:09:32] Can you describe just for folks who are unfamiliar with what it is we're talking about here, a little bit more of what constitutes the tool. If we're getting feedback from folks, is it an electronic database document that has narrative, maybe a combination of that?


Emily Brock: [00:09:49] Yeah. So let me why don't I start by just letting folks know that it's all available on What we did was we worked with our Geographic Information system department and we created a tool. You can use the tool visually. There's a map. You can see every parcel that is owned by the county. You can see the scores that it's got in these different areas and it's interactive. You can filter it how you wish. You can pull up a parcel that you care about or pull up, one that you've always thought should be for different use and kind of see what our starting point is. I would really encourage folks to start with the narrative and start through the narrative and all of the links in there are hot and then you can get to the tool. That way it just makes more sense when you go through the narrative.


Josh Slotnick: [00:10:36] Great. So what's next? Well, you mentioned phase two, right?


Emily Brock: [00:10:41] So we're going to use this tool to create policy and land use recommendations for county land. Some of the questions that I referenced earlier that we're going to try to tackle are does public ownership make sense or does private ownership make more sense? Is there county owned land that can and should be used differently? Is the county the proper owner and steward of the land, even if it has the same use? Should we really be the entity managing it, particularly within city limits? Do we use solid methodology to acquire and divest of our property? What's the legal process for doing that? What's the legal process for trades? We're going to probably come up with some recommendations for land banking.


Josh Slotnick: [00:11:19] What is land banking mean?


Emily Brock: [00:11:20] Land banking is when in this example, the county, we would purchase land now and sit on it and either sell it to a private entity that we think will use it for public good, whether that public good be economic development or housing development or parks or whatever the value is at that time, that's important. Or we could become the developer ourselves as we did so successfully with the development park, the airport industrial development park where we owned all the land we put in the infrastructure, and then we sold off parcels to private entities to and in that case the priority was industrial economic development. Great.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:12:00] Thanks. And it seems important for folks to know that this really is a tool for decision making. It's not put in these inputs and out pops the answer that we should divest ourselves of X, Y, or Z parcel.


Josh Slotnick: [00:12:14] That's totally what I was trying to get at with descriptive rather than prescriptive. This thing doesn't say sell this, keep that. It just gives us information, if I understand.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:12:23] Yeah, that's exactly. I mean, on paper, even with this tool, it might seem like one outcome would be desirable, but there's a whole public involvement piece. Oh yeah, that would have to be crossed. That threshold crossed at some point because I can think of a few instances in the past where some sliver of land to the outside observer might look like, Well, what are we doing hanging on to this? Only to discover this has a whole lot of value for a local neighborhood or values that we were just maybe not fully comprehending. So of.


Emily Brock: [00:12:58] Course. Of course. Well, there's a couple things to remember about the tool. One is that the Land Inventory and Assessment project was assigned to the Department of Land and Economic Development, and we're looking at it through a development lens, but we don't manage these parcels, right? And so we collaborated with outside departments that manage multiple properties, particularly Parks, Trails and Open Lands and Public Works. But the staff and boards that advise on the management of those properties definitely have to be part of the conversation and vet recommendations as they come up, in addition to going through a commissioner process. The other thing to remember is that no tool is perfect, right? So even if we were to create some kind of filter that said, okay, this is the low hanging fruit that we're going to start looking at doing something different with. There's going to be something that gets pulled out for some reason that we didn't foresee. And of course it was created by humans. So, you know, not robots. We make mistakes and the tool is fluid and factors change. That's the other thing. Things change.


Juanita Vero: [00:14:00] So talk a little bit more about that. Some of the rumors and fears you think they're you've heard or that you think need to be addressed.


Emily Brock: [00:14:07] I think it's really important to understand that we're doing this project as part of our job, as part of our job to be good stewards and to be responsible. We are not trying to mine our public resources for some specific special interest that is the flavor of the moment. You know, we are taking a look at plans that are written by other departments that have been passed by commissioners. We're trying to incorporate everything we can so that it's very, very holistic. But there are parcels that just don't make sense the way they are. And also there's policy recommendations that are going to come out of this project that have nothing to do with changing the use of a parcel, nothing at all. I mean, which parcels are owned by the county that are being used by the county for our government operations where we could expand an operation or we could build more facilities for our own administrative purposes. So there's just so many different ways to look through this.


Josh Slotnick: [00:15:08] I'm thinking about a person going to use this tool so they could look by attributes like, I want to find out which properties in the county got a zero on topography and a zero on culture and recreation, but maybe they got a three on some other value so you could search by value. Can you also search by property? Like somebody may live next to some county property that they feel like, Man, I wonder what this could be. Why is nothing happening or why is something happening? Could they type in the address of that property?


Emily Brock: [00:15:35] Yes, you can do a search for that property. Or you could just pull up the map and find your house, which is not hard to do. And you'll see quite clearly which properties are nearby that are owned by the county. Great.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:15:47] Thanks. Well, good work. This is pretty foundational work that any responsible local government ought to do.


Juanita Vero: [00:15:55] This is going to be a long process that will also inevitably change.


Emily Brock: [00:15:59] Yeah, I mean, I hope folks understand that right now it's all about feedback. We are hitting the road, so to speak, pounding the pavement. We're here today on the podcast. We're going to be in front of you guys this week. We're going to do lots of outreach with the community and we are interested in getting feedback on the tool and then we'll start to develop recommendations. And then you know what? We'll stop and we'll do another engagement effort and we'll hear about that and we will work with the boards that manage these facilities. And so that piece will be coming out in about six months. But right now, we're just really focused on the tool and the usefulness of it and getting feedback from the community on that.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:16:37] Is there anything else that you'd like to hit on about the land inventory that we've not talked about? Yes.


Emily Brock: [00:16:43] I would like you to know that I am not operating all by myself. I have a colleague named Flanna McLarty, who has done a ton of legwork on this project. And I'm so, so grateful for her. And none of this happens in a vacuum. So thank you, Lana.


Juanita Vero: [00:16:59] Yes. Thank you, Flanna.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:17:01] Great teamwork. Well, as we do with all of these Tip of the Spear podcasts, we like to put our guests a little bit on the spot. Hopefully not too much on the spot, but we'd love to hear any wisdom that you have from us...[laughter] We'd love to hear any wisdom that you have for us. Whether that is, you'll get no wisdom from us here. So you've come to the wrong podcast for that. But no, Have you read a good book? Have had some nugget of truth or wisdom to share?


Emily Brock: [00:17:36] Yes. Well, I've been thinking that this might pertain to this conversation because emotions do occasionally run high. And I wanted to remind everybody, and I've been reflecting on this a lot. I'm sure we all try to that our thoughts and emotions are not who we are. They are just passing through us to be observed and not absorbed. And so I have a poem by my very favorite, Emily Dickinson. Okay. That kind of talks about this. So and of course, she's a little dark, but and her name is Emily. So, hey, take what you will from that, okay? Me from myself to banish by Emily Dickinson. Me from myself to banish. Had I art impregnable my fortress unto all heart. But since myself assault me. How have I peace Except by subjugating consciousness. And since we're mutual monarch how this be except by abdication? Me of me.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:18:37] Thanks, Emily.


Emily Brock: [00:18:38] Yeah.


Juanita Vero: [00:18:38] That's great. Thank you.


Emily Brock: [00:18:39] So little Emily Dickinson, the Buddhist. Yes. Yes.


Dave Strohmaier: [00:18:43] Thanks for joining us.


Juanita Vero: [00:18:44] Thanks, everyone.


Josh Slotnick: [00:18:46] Thanks for listening to the Tip of the Spear podcast. If you enjoy these conversations, it would mean a lot if you would rate and review the show on whichever podcast app you like. And if you know a friend who would like to keep up with what's happening in local government, be sure to recommend this podcast to them. The Tip of the Spear podcast is made possible with support from MCAT, better known as Missoula Community Access Television and our staff in the Missoula County Communications Division. If you have a question or topic you'd like us to address on a future episode, email it to and to find other ways to stay up to date with what's happening at Missoula County, go to and thanks for listening.