For Billings, west-end growth is beginning to raise questions

David Fettig | Editor

Published October 1, 1996  | October 1996 issue

Unlike other Ninth District growth centers that have steadily increased in size over the years, Billings has perhaps been more subject to the rise and fall of agriculture and energy. Downturns in those industries took their toll on Billings in the mid-1980s and through the rest of the decade, but since then the economy has rebounded. Agricultural income has increased, oil refineries have expanded and service sectors-especially the medical industry-have grown, which have all helped to turn around the construction industry.

The growing importance of Billings as a regional center for service industries-medical, retail, financial and entertainment, for example-is expected to blunt the effect of downward swings in energy and agriculture and may even encourage faster-than-expected growth. When Yellowstone County prepared its 20-year comprehensive plan in 1990, it expected 1 to 2 percent annual growth in population for the Billings area, says Bill Arnold, planning director for Billings and Yellowstone County. In some years, the area has been growing at about a 3 percent rate.

The population for Yellowstone County, which is Billings' metropolitan statistical area, is just under 121,000, with projections for nearly 150,000 in 2020. The boom years of the 1970s accounted for a 23.7 percent increase in population that decade-from about 87,000 to 108,000. The 1980s brought an increase of just 5 percent and the '90s are expected to rebound to 10.9 percent.

Much of Billings' current growth has focused on the city's west side, according to Arnold. In addition to housing, there has been a boom in commercial development, he says-big box retail stores, motels, restaurants, banks and other service businesses. "It's amazing," Arnold says. And it's also good, inasmuch as such development expands the property tax base; however, such development also extends the city's police and fire services, and puts more pressure on roads, Arnold says.

Adding to the pressures on Billings' west end is the development occurring outside the city limits. One- and two-acre "ranchettes" have been springing up in rural areas near the city limits, and recently some multifamily units have even been built, Arnold says. The single-family lots are at least one-acre in size to meet requirements for a septic system and well, which must be located at a safe distance from each other to preclude contamination. Cluster housing on lots smaller than one acre must meet special septic and well requirements.

Of course, regardless of requirements, septic systems often raise the specter of groundwater contamination, Arnold says, and this has become a growing concern among rural landowners and county officials. Also, some farmers have reacted negatively to the city's westward sprawl, although Arnold notes that others-especially older farmers-are more than happy to sell their land to developers.

It isn't clear, yet, what impact such continuing development-both within the city's zoning limits and extending to unincorporated rural developments—will have on traffic, infrastructure and other services in the future, Arnold says. Billings currently has no plans to extend services beyond its city limits within the next 20 years. If it extended sewer and water services, the city would likely face a capacity problem.

This growth on Billings' west side has spurred the city to begin developing a master plan for the west end. About 200 people attended a public meeting in September and discussed such issues as transportation, groundwater quality, farm run-off and preservation of rural lands. "Eventually, the growth out there impacts the city," Arnold says.

As the development outside Billings has grown in recent years, officials of Billings and Yellowstone County have begun to meet on a monthly basis to work together to address concerns. "In the past, the city and the county did not always see eye-to-eye," Arnold says.