Character protections for University District move to City Council for public hearing

The University District sits tucked under a canopy of trees in the foreground outside downtown Missoula. The City Council will consider whether to place zoning protections on the neighborhood to preserve it’s character. (Missoula Current file photo) 

Citing a robust public process and two years of work, the sponsor of an ordinance aimed at preserving the character of the University District neighborhood won the votes needed Wednesday to push her measure from committee, sending it to the Missoula City Council for a public hearing.

Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones began working on the University District zoning overlay nearly two years ago after residents there expressed concern that larger homes were replacing smaller homes and disrupting the neighborhood’s character.

“Our growth policy does, in numerous areas, emphasize preserving neighborhood character,” Jones said. “Preserving residential neighborhood character is very important for our community.”

As written, 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 measured setback.

As in past meetings, proponents lauded the ordinance as a light-handed touch that does little more than regulate the mass, height and placement of new homes in the area. It does not restrict style or building materials.

Still, Ward 1 council member Heidi West, who voted against the measure, said current zoning both in Missoula and elsewhere smacks of inequity, where poorer neighborhoods with high rental rates see denser zoning and fewer neighborhood protections for those live there.

She cited the Northside and Westside neighborhoods as two local examples.

“As policy makers, we should always consider the folks in the neighborhoods that have the least resources and advocate for them first, because if we raise the bottom, we raise the standard for everyone,” West said. “If the goal is historic preservation, we should preserve those neighborhoods that are losing their contributing structures the fastest, and that’s not the University District.”

But other members of the committee see the ordinance as a tool that could be applied to other neighborhoods in the city. They also contend that individual neighborhoods should have the right to protect their interests and promote their future.

“Preserving the special sauce that is Missoula takes a lot of work, and this is one aspect of it,” said Ward 5 council member Stacy Anderson. “We need to be responsive to neighborhoods, and it’s important to listen to the ward reps from these neighborhoods because they’re the ones on the ground knocking doors.”

After members of the University District raised concerns in 2016, a neighborhood meeting and questionnaire followed, which found dissatisfaction with some new homes appearing within the area.

The neighborhood also formed a subcommittee to pursue the issue, followed by another questionnaire, which found support for zoning protections.

But resident Laura Timwell questioned the validity of those results, saying the questionnaire was only sent to those residents with an email on file at the Office of Neighborhoods.

While roughly 150 people supported the zoning tools, according to the questionnaire, that’s far less than the estimated 2,400 residents who live there, Timwell said.

“That’s about 5 percent. Is this a vocal minority? I feel we don’t know,” Timwell said. “I respectfully ask this council to consider if 5 percent is a mandate to change zoning in this way. It’s something that should be looked at.”

In 2016, when the mailer went out to all properties in the University District for the University District Neighborhood Council’s general meeting, the zoning issue was listed as a topic.

“We try to use every available tool given our limited resources,” Jones said.

The City Council will set a date for a public hearing during Monday night’s meeting.