City looks to streamline preservation commission, ordinance

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Heeding lessons learned from the debate over the Missoula Mercantile, the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee on Wednesday directed staff to begin drafting membership changes to the Historic Preservation Commission.

The city also started the process of rewriting the Historic Preservation Ordinance to make it easier for commission members to apply, and with a better understanding of their role in the process.

Whether that’s in a quasi-judicial role or an advisory role will be discussed later this year.

“Having applied the ordinance in a difficult application, we’re in the enviable position of rewriting the ordinance and making it work,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “The goal isn’t to allow for all demolition or all preservation, but frankly, to get an ordinance that works better, that people are able to work with, that they understand, and that they’re able to apply.”

The changes come on the heels of a long and contentious debate over a demolition permit for the Mercantile. The Historic Preservation Commission denied the permit, though the City Council later overturned the decision, saying the commission had reached its decision in error.

Members of the preservation community then took the city to court, though it eventually lost the case. With the issue now in the past, the City Council looks to avoid a repeat by streamlining the city’s preservation ordinance and amending how members are appointed to the preservation commission.

“We’ve streamlined (the commission), made it smaller and made it more flexible in how members are appointed,” said Jones. “We also added a little flexibility based upon whatever situation comes in the future. If a discipline is not represented, the commission may seek expertise before rendering an opinion.”

Whether the commission serves an advisory role to the City Council or as a quasi-judicial board remains to be seen. Whatever it is, future commission members should have a better understanding of their role in the process.

“I think people on the commission raised good points in how we chose them for their passion on a topic and told them they couldn’t be biased on it,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “We all set ourselves up for a collectively frustrating situation. My preference was they’d be advisory so they could give the full force of their opinion.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com