By STEPHEN DOW (This story originally appeared in the Billings Outpost. It appears here by permission.)

Candi Millar, planning director for the city of Billings, last week discussed the future of a city that has experienced “exponential” growth and changes in the past five years.

“A statistic I always like to cite is that between 1990 and 2000, we grew one square mile,” Millar said Heights Community Development Task Force’s monthly meeting. “Between 2000 and 2010, we grew 10 square miles. That exponential growth rate has continued in the last five years. Our population and city limits have both grown substantially.”

Due to this rapid rate of growth, Millar and her team are redeveloping the city’s comprehensive growth plan.

The process started in October when Millar began attending 35 community meetings and asking local citizens to fill out comment cards explaining what they felt Billings needed in order to be a safe and successful community in the future.

By the time the process was over in February, Millar had received more than 1,200 comment cards.

Her staff spent the following months reading through the cards and condensing the responses into six key categories that represent what Billings residents desire to see as their city continues to grow.

The first of these six categories is what Millar calls “placemakers.”

“‘Placemakers’ in Billings are those places and buildings that are unique to our community,” Millar said. “There were lots of comments saying that we needed to preserve our historic heritage through protecting and enhancing the places that are most important to this community.”

Notable “placemakers” mentioned by respondents included the Rims, the Yellowstone River, Skypoint and the two universities in town.

Participants also mentioned the importance of protecting historic buildings. This is one of the reasons that Billings will be one of the first cities in Montana to have a historic neighborhood.

Related to “placemakers” is what Millar calls “community fabric.”

“When I look over the Rims, I see this wonderful canopy of green,” Millar said. “And I consider that landscaping and the green spaces in our community to be our fabric.”

Millar said that many respondents felt that it was incredibly important to make sure that Billings continued to be such a green city.

There are many ways to accomplish this goal, but one is through the continued planting of trees along roads.

Heights Task Force member Roy Neece also suggested that subdivision developers should be required to develop parks. Currently, developers are required to allocate space for parks, but rarely develop them. This results in many empty and unused parcels of lands.

Millar said that she has been working on ways to address Neece’s concern and affirmed that parks are some of the most important parts of our community.

“Things like parks may seem to just be amenities, but big companies want their employees to live in a nice place,” Millar said. “So by improving our city through small things like parks and trees, we improve our chances of getting some of these big companies and therefore improve our economy.”

The third key category is “strong neighborhoods”.

“We all want a clean and safe neighborhood and that came out so strongly in these responses,” Millar said.

During the next five years, Millar said that the city of Billings will work with the Billings Police Department to decrease the number of traffic accidents and crimes in residential neighborhoods. Through doing this, she hopes that property reinvestment in these neighborhoods will increase.

The fourth key category is what Millar calls “home base.” It involves making sure that many affordable housing options are available in the community.

Currently, only 5 percent of all total rentals in town are vacant. Those that are available are often unaffordable for the average Billings resident.

Millar also emphasized the importance of making sure that single-family homes continue to be available as more Millennials and their families come to town.

“A lot of them want what their parents had: a nice house on a large lot and a fenced yard,” Millar said “We need to make sure that we grow in such a way that we can continue to provide that type of housing.”

The fifth key category is “mobility and access,” which involves creating a safer and more efficient transportation system for all residents.

Millar was quick to point out that this category doesn’t solely apply to motor vehicle users.

“According to AARP, 30 percent of the general population does not drive – they are either too young, too old, handicapped or choose not to drive,” Millar said. “Roads are incredibly important, but we also heard that there are other modes of transportation people are gravitating to – not only for recreation, but also for daily use. … We need to decide how to accommodate not only the motorists, but also the people who walk, ride bikes and take the transit.”

The last of the six key categories is what Millar calls “essential investments.” This means that the city needs to “spend money wisely on things that will improve our quality of life.” Thus, when the city invests in any of the other five categories mentioned above, it can be considered an “essential investment.”

Millar says that focusing on improving in these six areas will help make Billings a better community and one that is more desirable to the Millennial generation.

“We want to make this community attractive to young people – not only because they are our work force, but because they are our innovators and future leaders,” Millar said. “The Millennials actually choose a place they want to live, move to it, and then find a job. …  Through focusing on things like parks and safe neighborhoods, we hope to make Billings a place that this age group would choose as a home.”

Of course, if more people continue to move to Billings, we’ll have to find ways to accommodate them. Luckily, respondents had thoughts on this as well.

The vast majority of people mentioned infill – the process of redeveloping vacant lots - as the best way to accommodate newcomers.

“I think most of the people we talked to realized that it is less expensive to develop in an area where you already have infrastructure,” Millar said. “You already have a garbage truck rolling down the street in front of you. You already have police and fire departments nearby. Developing vacant lots is generally easier than expanding the city’s boundaries.”

Other respondents suggested developing in the Inner Belt Loop near Rehberg Ranch. Millar says that development in that area is possible, but would come with its share of difficulties.

“In the Inner Belt Loop, we have absolutely no services of any kind except for a small sewage treatment plant at Rehberg Ranch,” Millar said. “We have no water. We don’t even have a road yet. So there is going to be some real cost associated with expanding in that area.”

Respondents also suggested that the city continue to develop downtown and the West End.

Millar’s next step involves assessing these new places where the city could grow and seeing which ones best fit the criteria featured in the six key categories. She will have a detailed report explaining the costs and consequences of expanding in each area at the start of the new year.

However, Millar is currently speaking to various community groups such as the Heights Development Task Force about the six key categories and asking a simple question: “Did I get it right?”The consensus from the Heights Task Force was that she did – but only partially.

“You’ve done a wonderful job on this presentation, but I want to suggest that you’re missing half of the planning picture,” Task Force member Larry Seekins said at the end of Millar’s presentation. “There’s one thing missing up there: well-paying jobs. If you don’t have that, none of this will have an impact. So in addition to focusing on the residential part of the city, we also have to focus on the industrial section of our city. … If we ignore it, we do it at our peril.”

Millar agreed with Seekins’ assessment and affirmed that while jobs were not mentioned by any of the 1,200 respondents, they continue to be a priority of the city.

“Some of the value of this process is not just what people say, but what people don’t say,” Millar said. “Jobs, which used to be one of the bigger issues, was not brought up. But on the other hand, it is integral to have those jobs in this community. We can’t grow with just residential areas. We need to have both residential and commercial development in order to be a thriving community for years to come.”

 

Story and Photo by Shari Pike

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Billings Outpost. 

The urge to leave your mark on posterity is nothing new. Archeologists have found carved graffiti in ancient Egyptian tombs. Just 31 miles from Billings at Pompeys Pillar, William Clark climbed high and engraved his name in the sandstone on July 25, 1806.

Clark’s signature is historic. The rest of us have no such claim to fame. Cole Randall scratched his name and the date on the Pillar in April 2014 and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vandalism, paying out $1,000 in fines and restitution of $3,400.

Mr. Randall made the same mistake as my 9-year-old nephew. When you create an illicit work of art, don’t sign your name. He got off a bit cheaper than Cole Randall. His mother made him scrub off his work and then he was grounded. Was Mr. Randall’s emotional development at the same level as a 9-year-old?

The current graffiti craze began in the U.S. in the 1970s in New York City. Two technological advances, spray paint and felt-tipped markers, made lightning quick doodles possible.

But many practitioners are serious artists, not just aimless youth. Log onto takelessons.com, type in “graffiti,” and a dozen online teachers pop up. Tutorials in graffiti cost from $15 to 40 per half hour.

Billings has several examples of legitimate wall art, also called public art. In April, artists primed and painted the alley walls off First Avenue North between North 30th and 31st streets. This venture was so successful that more walls are being sought.

But many people think of gang symbols when they think of graffiti. Billings is home to two prominent gangs, the Nortenos and the Surenos. The Nortenos use the sign “X4” and the color red. The Surenos prefer blue. While the names are of Spanish origin, members can be of any race or ethnic origin.

Gangs sometimes mark their territory with graffiti and may mark atop those of a rival gang. But according to Sgt. Shawn Finnegan of the Billings Police Department, they account for only about 1 percent of all graffiti.

“They’ve have been pretty quiet lately,” he said.

Quick draw artists called taggers produce most of the rest. A tag can be anything from what appears to be a meaningless scribble to attractive art. If the creator has permission to spray and paint, it’s wall art. Without permission, it’s criminal mischief, a misdemeanor.

“Their art evolves from a scribble to a very stylized version,” said Sgt. Finnegan. “Many taggers move on to large murals on rooftops and the morphs on trains.”

Becky Shay, a crime analyst for the Billings Police, said, “Taggers practice in front of the TV with paper and markers like we would knit or crochet. They’re in their late teens to early 20. Some of the most prolific taggers are in their late 20s.”

What’s the point? Why would people want to leave a mark that only they can read? Like all vandalism, it may just be anger-based.

Other taggers work in broad daylight, working so fast that they can leave their mark while walking. They get a rush from the danger, the kind of rush that a compulsive gambler seeks.

The Billings crime prevention office takes a lot of vandalism calls. Thousands of dollars a year are spent to remove the paint. The city of Billings has an ordinance that requires the property owner to remove the graffiti within 10 days after a complaint or receive a fine. This is especially hard on the elderly.

“We have a trailer with donated equipment to get rid of it immediately and there are volunteers to give assistance when needed,” said Ms. Shay.

Tanya Punt, a code enforcer for the city of Billings, said that in her four years on the job, she’s never had to issue a ticket to anyone.

“They (the property owners) usually paint over the graffiti right away,” she said.

Graffiti isn’t limited to a certain part of town, but there are favored places: The Sixth Avenue underpass, recently repainted, as well as light posts, dumpsters and utility boxes.

Railroad cars are a new venue for Billings. While there are some mindless scribbles, many cars boast large, intricate paintings, which means that the artist has spent a long time on railroad property. They’re trespassing and are liable to the company for damages if caught.

The bowls of the skate park at First Avenue South and South 27th Street are also prime targets. As fast as the city paints over it, more graffiti appears. The Galles building, kitty-corner on Minnesota Avenue, also gets a lot of attention.

True artists would prefer to have all graffiti legalized.

They like working on exterior walls because of the size of the canvas, and also because their creation is visible, gratis, to the public.

The city of Bogota, Colombia, with 8 million people, has effectively stopped fighting graffiti. While mindless scrawls still appear, the wall art is amazing. Business owners even commission grafiteros to decorate their stores.

Should Billings follow suit? Is graffiti beauty or blemish?

July 4, 2015
Deborah Courson Smith

HELENA, Mont. - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday the costs of implementing smokestack technology to control mercury pollution should have been considered by the EPA before the agency proceeded to draft its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

While the ruling means the agency has to rewrite some components of the air pollution regulations, the new rules for power plants will remain in effect while a lower court reviews the case.

Anne Hedges, director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, says it won't mean much to the state because newer controls were put in place in 2010.

"It's hard to imagine that if EPA goes back and determines whether it's economic to install mercury controls on power plants, they wouldn't look at places like Montana and say, 'They did it five years ago. Of course it's economic,'" she says.

Besides mercury, the rule intends to curtail emissions of arsenic, chromium and hydrochloric acid gas.

Hedges says for plants where the new technology has not been installed yet, the court's ruling could delay implementation - and that puts people at risk. Mercury is a neurotoxin connected to heart and asthma problems.

"People all over the country are breathing air from power plants next door, and they deserve cleaner air," she says.

The EPA estimates the pollution controls will prevent about 11,000 premature deaths every year.