By Martin Kidston
A petition circulating on Change.org looks to gain enough momentum to convince the Missoula City Council to overturn an ordinance approved last month legalizing the short-term rental of homes to tourists.
As it turns out, the City Council already plans to revisit the issue next spring after the 2017 Legislature adjourns.
Launched roughly three weeks ago by Michael FitzGerald, the petition asks the council to reverse its decision to legalize non-primary rentals in Missoula. It gained 11 supporters over the past week, bringing to 86 the number of people who have signed the document.
“This new ordinance will introduce an ever-revolving door of strangers into our neighborhoods, taking what makes your neighborhood amazing – its people – and replacing them with tourists who you’ll never know for more than a few days,” FitzGerald wrote in his petition.
FitzGerald, who couldn’t be reached Tuesday for comment, believes the ordinance will create anxiety for parents who live next door to a home that’s rented out to visitors, or what he bills as a pop-up motel.
Like others who opposed the ordinance, he fears the new measure will drive up single-family housing prices and erode neighborhoods, though supporters have disagreed.
The council introduced the measure in May and worked on it for several months before sending it back to committee in August for refinement. It passed the council in early October on a 9-3 vote and saw just one public comment – that coming from FitzGerald.
“(Short-term rentals) put a revolving door of strangers next to where families live. They also make it so we never get to know our neighbors,” FitzGerald testified. “You never know who your children will be talking to or playing with. They create endless anxiety for the neighbors living next to them.”
Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley said the City Council had intended to revisit the ordinance in the spring, regardless of the new petition. She said the city is working with Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, to better define tourist homes in state law.
The results of the Legislature, along with other data being collected by Development Services, could give the city more tools to work with, making it easier to cut through a complicated issue – one that’s facing cities across the country.
“We’re collecting data on what’s exactly in our stock right now – which tourist homes are owner occupied and which ones aren’t,” Bentley said. “There’s a lot of ideas floating around, and we’re definitely revisiting this in the spring.”
One of the measure’s sponsors, Ward 4 council member John DiBari, said he remains pleased with the ordinance. Tourist homes have existed in Missoula for some time now, he said, and the new regulation brings them out of the shadows by providing uniform guidelines.
“Everyone on council has had an open mind about this from the beginning,” DiBari said. “We were in a reasonable position to not only recognize the fact that we already have these uses out there, but to provide a legal path forward and provide safeguards.”
While DiBari believes the ordinance will prove effective, he believes it’s important to monitor any information collected by the city. If tweaks are needed, he said he’d move to consider them.
“Everyone is fully aware that if there needs to be changes, we’ll make the changes to make sure the uses are well integrated into the neighborhoods,” DiBari said. “This provides a good foundation to do tourist homes and a good foundation to collect information and monitor what’s going to happen. It’s up to the people who run tourist homes to step up, become legal and advocate their position.”
City Clerk Marty Rehbein said residents have two options when opposing a new city ordinance, including an influencing petition, such as the one launched by FitzGerald.
Unlike a ballot petition, there is no timeline for an influencing effort, though it must win enough backers to convince the City Council to revisit its decision. How many signatures that requires is up to each member of the council.
Council members Harlan Wells, Jon Wilkins and Michelle Cares voted against the ordinance when it passed on Oct. 3.
“The City Council does have a rule that once a measure has been taken up, six months have to elapse before the same issue can be revisited,” Rehbein said. “Any council member could reintroduce it. Otherwise, it takes a two-thirds vote to take it up sooner.”
Rehbein said the influencing approach met success when the City Council passed its initial ban on talking on cellphones while driving. At the time, it didn’t include a ban on texting.
“The council came back to that issue and reworked that ordinance,” Rehbein said. “It was reworked into a hands-free ordinance. That’s an example where the City Council came back to an issue after hearing from a lot of citizens.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org