Missoula City Council revises zoning regs governing backyard cottages, commercial buildings

Commercial buildings cannot be used as signs, emphasizing a corporate logo or color scheme, under zoning regulations approved Monday night by the Missoula City Council. (File photo)

No longer can Missoula businesses reside in buildings designed to mimic their corporate colors or logo – for example, the black-and-red, neon-lit Cellular Plus/Verizon store on East Broadway.

But homeowners can now build mother-in-law cottages on their appropriately sized lots without securing an expensive and time-consuming conditional use permit.

And owners of so-called “tourist homes” – think Airbnbs – only need to notify their nearest neighbors of their intention to provide short-term rentals to travelers.

Missoula’s new cideries? There are now more places where they can legally build. Townhome developments? They’ll be better looking and more closely guided, but their developers can pay into a city fund rather than donating park land.

In all, city planners recommended and City Council members on Monday night approved changes to 11 categories of Title 20 of Missoula’s zoning ordinance.

This go-round, the annual exercise included a review of several zoning provisions that ignited fierce debate over the past five years.

Former Ward 4 City Councilman Jon Wilkins reminded the council that accessory dwelling units (those so-called mother-in-law cottages) were a hot-button issue when their predecessors required homeowners to apply for a conditional use permit before building a second home on a single parcel.

Former city councilman Jon Wilkins returned to council chambers Monday night to speak against loosening regulations on accessory dwelling units. (File photo)

Wilkins, in fact, continued to fight all ADUs until he left the council at the end of 2017, insisting that single-family residential zoning allowed just one – not two – homes to be built on each lot.

On Monday, he asked council members to pull the ADU section out of their Title 20 review for a separate public hearing and further consideration at another meeting.

“I don’t think people know what you are doing,” he said.

Councilwoman Gwen Jones offered an amendment to reinstate the requirement for a conditional use permit – and a public hearing – before any ADU is approved.

Only she and Ward 4 Councilman Jesse Ramos (Wilkins’ successor on council) voted for the amendment.

As passed by council in a subsequent vote, the Title 20 revision now allows the approval of accessory dwelling units via an expedited process.

No conditional use permit or public hearing is needed, but homeowners must still apply for an annual ADU permit from the city. The property’s owner must live in one of the two houses, and there can be no more than one ADU per parcel.

All zoning district standards must be followed, as well as any architectural or size requirements. And property owners must notify their neighbors “one parcel deep” prior to submitting the application for an ADU.

Sam Sill, representing the Missoula Organization of Realtors, endorsed the change, saying the $924 conditional use permit was no longer needed or justified, given the lack of controversy generated by ADUs over the past few years.

Of the 3,000 residential units approved by the city of Missoula over the past five years, just 0.8 percent involved ADU requests. Of the 24 ADU requests, 17 have been approved – a success rate that Councilman Bryan von Lossberg said speaks to “the robustness of the rules.”

In addition, ADUs “are another way to help with the affordability issue,” said Sill, by providing additional lower-cost rentals. “They help with infill, address sprawl, provide a versatile housing option and a benefit to homeowners, and can help push rental prices down.”

A second issue in the Title 20 revisions also harkened to an earlier citywide debate.

Ultimately approved on a 7-3 vote Monday, the “business as a sign” regulations came out of the controversy over the gaudy Cellular Plus/Verizon building on East Broadway.

City planner Jenn Gress explained that a commercial building essentially becomes a sign “when a building’s design and architectural style become an extension of its signage scheme.

A building’s color might reflect a company’s logo or color, and/or it might be designed to emphasize the logo.

“Signage should be subordinate to the building,” Gress said. “The building should not be used for corporate branding. It should not be designed to function as a sign.”

The zoning changes establish “a measurable threshold for corporate branding used on the building” and “add standards that set a threshold for the use of corporate colors, logo or other features.”

“Once that threshold is exceeded,” Gress said, “those elements above the threshold are included in the calculation of the maximum signage area allowed per the sign code.”

The new, considerably more detailed standards (and the attendant review process) will be applied citywide.

The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce opposed the “business as a sign” regulations, as did council members Michelle Cares, von Lossberg and Ramos.

Clint Burson, governmental affairs director for the Chamber, said the ordinance is “vague and open to personal preference of the reviewer.”

“This creates unpredictability in the development process and increases costs,” he said in a letter to the City Council. “Should the decision be delegated to the Design Review Board, that would also add additional time and steps, increasing costs.”

The Chamber is concerned that increasing the cost and difficult of building commercial spaces in Missoula could push some businesses outside the city limits – “or outside the community altogether,” Burson said.

“The result would contradict the city’s inward focus goal and would increase the pressure put on Missoula’s transportation infrastructure,” he said.

With thousands of buildings in the city, one or two controversial designs should not prompt such a major change, Burson said on the Chamber’s behalf.

“The vast majority of new commercial construction has been well-received and shows that most businesses in Missoula already respect the architectural character of the city,” he said.

Among the other changes approved Monday night as part of the Title 20 revisions were an easing of the notification requirements for property owners that want to use a house as an Airbnb or other “tourist home.”

Rather than being required to notify all neighbors within 150 feet, property owners must now notify “one parcel deep.”

Also amended were the regulations governing the increasingly popular Townhome Exemption Developments. The new, more detailed rules clarify the types of houses allowed in those developments, what kind of houses are actually considered townhomes and a host of subdivision design standards – including parking, access, building design and the like.

Those changes were unanimously approved by council members.