City Council adopts new rules guiding townhouse projects; adds public notice

Construction
The Missoula City Council adopted new rules regulating townhouse projects, requiring most projects to undergo a public hearing and meet current zoning requirements. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

The Missoula City Council on Monday night adopted an ordinance requiring certain townhouse projects to undergo city review and a public hearing, amending what advocates agree was a well-intended but flawed state law adopted in 2011.

The council voted 9-1 to adopt the ordinance changing the old townhouse exemption after a lengthy debate that focused on affordability, housing stock and basic living standards.

Ward 5 council member Annelise Hedahl voted against measure, saying it would only worsen the city’s struggle to provide affordable housing – a problem she tied to a limited housing supply.

“I’m afraid it’s going to impact the affordability for some people,” said Hedahl. “If we don’t have the option to build more townhomes, we’re out of inventory and the price keeps going up.”

While other council members also expressed concerns over affordability, they saw the new policy as a compromise between developers looking to increase the city’s housing stock and residents who believe the existing policy allows builders to circumvent the public process.

“This whole package is trying to find a balance in building housing in Missoula of all different types and finding protections for the public,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “Somewhere between that is a good compromise.”

The proposal dates back to 2011 when the state Legislature passed an amendment allowing certain duplex projects to occur without subdivision review. The move was intended to streamline the subdivision process and make townhome projects more affordable.

But critics of the measure say the exemption made it possible for developers to skirt public input and avoid city review for mitigating impacts, include complete streets and adequate parking. Several large projects have moved forward in Missoula under the 2011 law, including a 46-unit townhome project in the South Hills and a smaller but controversial condominium project in the Rattlesnake Neighborhood.

“Through the townhome exemption, this (Rattlesnake) property owner was able to propose the development of 12 townhomes,” said Tom Zavitz of Development Services. “The old townhome exemption gave the city no control over that. This proposal will address so many of those concerns.”

As adopted, the ordinance now requires projects larger than five units to meet current zoning standards and to undergo a conditional review, which includes public notice and a public hearing – something that was lacking in the old rules.

Before adopting the measure, the council also added an amendment requiring projects smaller than five units to include a public notice to immediate neighbors. The council deadlocked on the amendment on a 5-5 vote, though Mayor John Engen voted to approve it.

Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins made the motion, saying current property owners are entitled to know what’s going on before a project breaks ground.

“I think it’s important that people in these older neighborhoods are informed about what’s going on around them,” Wilkins said. “They spend a lot of money on their houses. They bought them, they’ve been paying the mortgage and taxes, and it’s unfair to let someone come in and change the character of that neighborhood.”

Council members Harlan Wells and Jordan Hess, both of Ward 2, were absent Monday night.

Members of the public supported the new rules.

“I’m very strongly in support of these restrictions relative to what the state Legislature has created,” said Rattlesnake resident Kenneth Lousen. “These proposals really speak to a lot of the really important details that come up with development.”