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City of Missoula to update 2014 aerial maps to reflect changes on the ground

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Posted at 2:32 PM, Jan 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-22 16:32:28-05

Demolition crews began removing the old Village 6 Cinema in the summer of 2014 as a wave of redevelopment swept across the Brooks Street corridor, giving life to South Crossing and a handful of new businesses.

Back then, around the city, the Five Valleys Bowling Center and Lucky Strike Casino still stood, the construction of Mary Avenue hadn’t begun, and the redevelopment of Russell Street was years away.

Downtown student housing didn’t exist, and even the Old Sawmill District was an empty field.

Much has changed over the last six years, making the suite of aerial maps used by a number of city departments – including fire and police – obsolete. New construction has transformed city neighborhoods with housing and commercial opportunities, and the transportation grid has changed.

“The imagery we’re dealing with now was flown in the spring of 2014,” said Lee Macholz with the city’s GIS services. “It’s over five years old at this point, and it’s the base map for a lot of processes throughout a lot of departments.”

Looking to modernize its dated maps, the city issued a request for proposals last year that netted 10 different companies specialized in aerial imagery. After review, the city selected Aero-Graphics Inc., based in Salt Lake City, which plans to begin new aerial mapping this spring – so long as the City Council approves it.

The mapping project and its $34,000 cost received approval from the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee this month. But approval wasn’t unanimous, with council member Sandra Vasecka calling it unnecessary.

“I don’t think we absolutely need it,” Vasecka said. “I think there’s cheaper avenues to get the aerial footage of this.”

Vasecka is alone among elected officials and department leaders who have described the maps as an essential tool in city planning. Police and fire rely upon the aerial maps, as does Parks and Recreation, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, Development Services and Public Works to name a few.

The city intended to update the maps in 2018, though the project never took place. Valley Air Photos, based in Boise, produced the last series of maps in 2014. They hang in several city buildings, more nostalgia than a useful tool given their failure to accurately reflect today’s Missoula.

“When we’re working with the public or internally and that imagery is five years out of date, you’re not seeing a lot of the growth and development that has happened,” said Macholz, noting that elements of 44 Ranch, Linda Vista and Canyon River are absent on current maps. “Even the infill in the city you can’t see on that imagery. It presents a problem for discussions and some of these other processes.”

The rail yard and Orange Street into downtown Missoula is captured in this 2014 aerial map of the city. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)Missoula’s economy lagged in the wake of the 2008 depression, though it began to stir in 2014, the last year the aerial maps were completed. By 2017, Development Services logged a record year for building permits valued at nearly $245 million.

The next year, the value of building permits pushed past $250 million, and while figures from 2019 haven’t been released, it was a strong year for construction across the city. Other infrastructure has been completed as well, including new sidewalks and trails funded by MRA, and a number of road improvements.

The current suite of maps don’t reflect any of it.

“Having up to date imagery is so incredibly important,” said council member Julie Merritt, who uses the images at her job. “Being able to just look at that and determine where you have sidewalks and where you don’t have sidewalks in a neighborhood is possible when you have imagery of that quality.”

That, she said, saves money over time.

“It saves a ton of legwork and money to look at that and make those determinations from your computer rather than having to send someone out to do that work,” she said. “It’s incredibly important on so many levels.”

The alternative to purchasing high-resolution images of the city would involve a subscription service. While such services may offer a lower cost alternative up front, the subscription adds up over time. Officials also said that subscription-based maps only offer referential imagery, not authoritative, meaning the city has no control over quality or alterations.

The timing of the aerial mapping also is key and the window is often short. The flight must take place on a sunny day when the snow is gone, and before the leaves on the trees have opened. Such conditions render the city below in detailed clarity, and that’s what the city hopes to achieve this spring if the contract is approved.

“It’s such a crucial tool for police, fire and Development Services,” said council member Gwen Jones. “This community is changing rapidly, so it’s important.”