Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Nearly 10 years after adopting a building code program, Missoula County on Tuesday rolled back some of the regulations it included by exempting certain structures from needing a building permit on certain properties.

Montana Code Annotated gives commissioners the authority to wave certain structures from requiring a permit. But before Tuesday, only storage structures under 200 square feet were exempt from the regulation.

County building official Kevin Heisler said public feedback prompted the county to add several other building types to the exemption. As approved on Tuesday, they include greenhouses and hoop structures for personal use only with no public access.

They also exempt decks less than 30 inches off grade, gazebos and pergolas, and residential additions with no habitable space, such as covered patios and entry ways. Some agricultural buildings also qualify for the exemption.

“We're bringing that back with some tighter guardrails,” said Heisler. “For someone to get the incentive, they need to get a certificate from the Department of Revenue classifying that parcel as agricultural. State law is very specific that this is only for building permits. It doesn't exempt them from getting health approval and zoning approval.”

All exemptions still require the property trade permits, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing where such uses apply. And while the county could wave single-family residences from requiring a building permit, the county decided otherwise.

“The feedback from the public on that was they weren't interested in seeing those exempt from building permits,” said Heisler.

While the exemptions were well received by most, some suggested the language defining the qualifications could be made clearer. The county plans to prepare an FAQ on what exactly qualifies and what doesn't, and what sort of property classifications they may need.

But James Halvorson disputed the county's right to require a building permit at all. He suggested that permit requirements were never voted on by the wider public and requiring a building permit only adds costs to a project.

“I totally reject that it's the government's job to guarantee your home is safe,” he said. “It's up to the homeowner to build an improvement which they can afford and that's safe. It's not the county's job to tell them what they can and can't do on their own land.”

Halvorson also argued that the county was catering to the construction of “McMansinos” rather than humble dwelling units in order to gain more revenue from property taxes. Commissioners pushed back on both arguments.

“That's a ridiculous statement,” Commission Josh Slotnick said of the revenue argument. “Our desire for housing is to see everyone in a house that works for them. It's not about property tax revenue. It actually costs more to deliver services to a house in most cases than that house generates in revenue.”

Missoula Current logo
Get our free mobile app

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier also said requiring a building permit for residential structures was a matter of public safety.

“It's not so much the person who is currently occupying the house, it's the person a few years from now who may not have built the shabbily constructed structure who moves in and could have life or safety issues associated with that,” he said.

Tuesday's action is the second this year in which the county has sought to loosen regulations or offer new tools allowing for wider use of certain structures. In February, commissions directed county staff to work with Bureau Veritas North America to outline a “clear and concise path forward” for individuals looking to convert a storage shed into a dwelling unit.

Some see the conversion of sheds into tiny houses, or accessory dwelling units, as a possible way to combat housing affordability. If done right, experts say the results can be budget friendly “and incredibly charming.”

“We get quite a bit of walk-ins with this kind of request, or wanting information on their next step forward,” Heisler said in February. “If you buy a shed from a roadside shed vendor, they're built as sheds, not as a house or cabin.”