City to place interim regs on townhome developments; opponents see moratorium

The Missoula City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee on Wednesday placed new zoning regulations on certain townhome projects, at least temporarily, to give Development Services a chance to draft and propose permanent changes to city code.

The decision, which goes to the City Council on May 6, impacts projects known as a Townhome Exemption Development, and only those that meet certain criteria.

That includes larger projects that impact natural resources, are planned in multiple phases, or are proposed in areas where public connectivity is absent but needed, among other factors.

“The hope is that we can do our best to implement some interim regulations in a way that will provide a more orderly review of these kinds of projects to address what we’re required to address through zoning, which is public health, safety and welfare,” said council member John DiBari.

Back in 2011, the Montana Legislature added townhomes to state laws already governing condominiums. The addition was intended to make home buying more affordable by expediting a townhome project’s review, and by cutting out some aspects of public notification.

Lavalle Means, manager of the planning division at Development Services, said Missoula has encouraged TED projects as an alternative to standard subdivisions and their lengthy review. In the early days of the new rule, she said, most TED proposals represented smaller infill projects that took advantage of existing city infrastructure.

But that began to change in 2014 as the projects grew larger, raising concerns over neighborhood fit and public notification. The project has grown worse in recent years, Means said.

“What we’re seeing is even larger projects that are often happening on greenfield sites, with even greater potential for natural resource constraints that we need to be thinking about,” she said. “The inability to establish public connectivity has become a bigger issue.”

Means said the interim regulations will give city planners room to draft recommended changes to city code. It also affirms the City Council’s right to deny a TED project if it impacts what Means described as “orderly development” within the city.

In addition, it also sets a timeline for a development to secure a zoning compliance permit and a second timeline to install infrastructure and secure a building permit. A one-year extension could be considered, Means said.

If the timeline expires, the permits are revoked.

“This time limit is intended to ensure the improvements are in place within a reasonable time frame and beyond the likelihood of condition changes,” Means said. “This allows the city to ensure orderly development is occurring when you approve a conditional use permit.”

The proposal drew support from several residents but opposition from the Missoula Organization of Realtors, which called the process rushed and lacking wider public input.

Attorney Allen McCormick, who represents several local developers, said the interim regulations will effectively kill at least two TED projects already in the planning stages.

“This serves as a moratorium on two projects that are in the works,” McCormick said. “We cannot now file an application for a TED on the one we’ve been dealing with for the last nine months and trying to work it though the process. It’s a little troublesome.”

McCormick said he and his client had a recent meeting with city officials to figure out how to move one particular project forward. That meeting took place last week, though McCormick said he and the developer weren’t informed of the interim ordinance and the impacts it would have on the project.

“We were not told at that meeting that the interim ordinance would kill our ability to do the phasing that we described at that meeting,” he said. “We’re a little concerned about the process, the transparency of that, and how it impacts the projects we’ve been working on for months.”

DiBari said the interim regulations aren’t designed as a moratorium.

“The idea behind this was to explicitly provide a clearer path forward for folks who want to approach townhome exemption development and provide some additional flexibility for those folks who want to do a subdivision,” DiBari said.

Under the proposed time frame, the ordinance would take effect on May 6 if adopted by City Council and expire on Nov. 5. During that time, Development Services would draft and propose amendments to current code.