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County considers first phase of new zoning standards

Missoula County civil attorney John Hart, left, and Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier listen to the zoning presentation on Thursday. The amendments were praised by real estate advocates as positive changes to county policies. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A quorum of Missoula County commissioners on Thursday considered new zoning regulations intended to create more predictability for the public and increase opportunities for developers.

Years in the making, the revised zoning policies don’t expand zoning to new areas of the county, but do provide new opportunities to build affordable housing and commercial development in areas of the existing zoning district.

The updates include what county staff describe as both housekeeping amendments and capital changes.

“Our regulations were really difficult to work with,” said senior planner Jennie Dixon. “These regulations should be easy to read and understand, and the public should be able to rely on them as being complete and accurate.”

Dixon said the housekeeping amendments include changes to state law and county policy, along with attorney opinions, case law and consistency with other departmental regulations.

The capital amendments also implement six regulatory changes intended to bolster development and better define everything from hillside setbacks to building heights and townhome projects.

“Shifting to pyramidal zoning is essentially allowing residential uses in commercial districts, which we don’t do right now, and allowing commercial uses in industrial districts, which we also don’t do right now,” said Dixon.

The capital changes were selected to have the greatest amount of impact on the greatest number of people, and they represent the first of several zoning issues in which the county intends to address in later phases.

The amendments won general appraisal from those who spoke on Thursday, though a representative from the Clark Fork Coalition expressed concern over eliminating the setback requirements from hillside over 25 percent in grade, especially on cuts above waterways.

County staff said state law and other county regulations already govern setback distances from erosive soils and waterways, though they said the issue would remain a work in progress as the zoning effort tackles future phases, including urban and rural areas.

Charles Edward Abramson, a real estate broker, praised the county for adopting pyramidal zoning, which allows a blend of uses across a wider area of the zoning district. The results are expected to incentive new projects by giving developers more flexibility and predictability.

“This represents an awful lot of work and also a lot of progress,” Abramson said. “Historically, the issue of having commercial uses in industrial areas was that it required a finding that whatever you were doing was not a self-imposed hardship. This makes that clear and is a path in solving that.”

County planners Jamie Erbacher, left, and Jennie Dixon served as the primary architects for the zoning changes and offered Thursday’s presentation on the amendments. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Missoula Organization of Realtors also spoke in support of the zoning amendments, both on the housekeeping and capital side.

Sam Sill, government affairs officer for the MOR, said the capital changes could help boost opportunities to build affordable housing.

“We think in general it gives developers greater flexibility and to incrementally increase opportunities to build more obtainably priced housing in the county,” said Sill. “As you know, the affordability issue is something that continues to be a problem.”

Roughly 6 percent of land in Missoula County is zoned, and no new areas are proposed for zoning under the amendments. The remaining 94 percent of the county is not regulated by zoning and will remain unaffected by the changes.

As written, the changes primarily address the Missoula metro area, including areas of the valley outside city limits. Sill said MOR also supported the housekeeping amendments.

“We gave them a pretty close review and consulted with some of our colleagues in the development community to vet these out,” he said. “The changes are fairly minor in nature, but I do believe they will lead to a more predictable process in zoning compliance and a more user friendly document.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com