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University District residents ask city for zoning protections to preserve character

A portion of the University District near the University of Montana campus in Missoula takes up the fall colors. A number of district residents want the City Council to adopt special zoning standards to protect what they see as the district’s historical character. (Missoula Current file photo)

Calling it a “very unique” neighborhood, several University District residents urged the City Council on Wednesday to adopt an ordinance that would regulate the mass and placement of new homes in the area.

The effort, which has received several hearings in committee, began nearly two years ago over concerns that new, larger homes were replacing smaller homes and not adhering to the district’s character.

“Over time, people have begun to fill the envelope with a structure, or come close to filling it, and that’s happened a couple of times in the University District,” said Tom Zavitz with the city’s Development Services. “Those houses don’t fit the character of the neighborhood.”

Members of the neighborhood in 2016 brought their concerns to their ward representative on the City Council. A neighborhood meeting and questionnaire followed, which found dissatisfaction with some new homes appearing within the district.

The neighborhood formed a subcommittee to pursue the issue, followed by another questionnaire. The results, University District leaders have said, netted 100 comments in favor of creating zoning tools to prevent future projects that don’t fit the district’s character.

“These tools seem ideal for what the neighborhood wanted to do,” Zavitz said. “It’s not a unique situation or tool. We’re already use neighborhood character overlays in three other places in Missoula.”

The proposed ordinance would prevent the tear-down of two smaller homes to build one larger home within the district, and it would include a height restriction and setbacks on corner parcels.

It would also require the owners of certain parcels to maintain the current setback from the street and consult with the city’s Historic Preservation Officer before undergoing construction.

“To me, this is a very thoughtful, crafted and well-designed approach to recognize the character of the University District without adding burdensome regulations,” said district resident Jeff Birkby. “The proposed overlay is very gentle, it doesn’t restrict housing styles or architectural freedom or choice of building materials. It simply addresses overall mass, height and setbacks.”

Katie Sullivan agreed, telling the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee that the proposals retain widespread support throughout the district.

“It’s had wide support these entire two years, and that shows something,” she said. “I find that the overlay is a light touch that still allows growth and remodeling, but helps preserve the character of the neighborhood.”

While the proposal has stated support from district residents, it’s not unanimous. Chris Chitty, owner of Mast and Co. Builders, believes the ordinance is an attempt to dictate taste and regulate “what people should and shouldn’t want” in a new home.

It also adds more regulations that local builders must navigate, he said.

“More times than I can admit, we get stymied by unintended consequences of good-meaning regulations,” he said. “The ecosystem of regulations we navigate every day were built up one-by-one, light touch after light touch, and in the end they accrete into a heavy touch and sometimes a burden, and sometimes they create perverse incentives that do the opposite of what they were intended.”

The committee took no action on Wednesday, though it’s expected to take the issue up one last time next week before voting on whether to send it to the City Council for adoption or denial.