Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Citing a backlog of applications and growing pressure, the Missoula City Council on Monday agreed to implement an emergency ordinance making development projects – once approved only upon condition – a matter of right within certain zoning districts.

Over the years, layers of red tape added by various councils has increased the number of conditional uses to nearly 50. Since then, 78 projects have been required to secure a conditional use from City Council – a process that can be filled with politics, delay and mounting costs.

The added costs raise the expense for developers, driving up the price of the end project. It has prompted frustration from city officials and members of the public. It also slows city staff in reviewing needed housing permits, which most see as the city's priority.

“The emergency is the housing crisis. The idea is to clear the staff time up,” said council member Mike Nugent. “If we free up staff time to more efficiently review housing opportunities, these changes will help ease the gridlock to provide housing options both efficiently and effectively.”

The housing market in the City of Missoula has faced escalating prices over the past 8 years. In 2005, the median price of a home sat just below $200,000. It current sits just shy of $550,000.

The city has made several attempts to expedite housing construction across all price points. Still, the delay in processing building permits, regardless of type, has slowed housing reviews down.

The emergency ordinance clears the slate, allowing many projects to move forward “by right” rather than a protracted review by the city.

“Through this ordinance, we can enact changes that can move the needle in terms of allocation staff time to reviewing housing projects, which is where I think our staff time should be going,” said council member Mirtha Becerra.

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Under the approved changes, 13 uses will still require conditional approval by City Council – a process that plays out on a case-by-case basis and adds time to the process.

Another 21 uses will be shifted from conditional to permitted by right in each district. Lastly, 13 uses within some districts will remain conditional but permitted in other districts.

“There's this promise of a tool that doesn't deliver. It only delivers additional time, costs and delay,” said Mayor Jordan Hess. “This (change) allows staff to dedicate time on reviews that matter and filter out things that create process for process' sake.”

The emergency ordinance will remain in effect until the city adopts code reform – a master effort to bring city zoning and the growth policy into compliance in accordance to state law.

The changes allowed by right in each district range from community residential of more than nine units, to group living, office and manufacturing. The council agreed to keep bed and breakfast applications as conditional rather than being by warranted by right.

The changes are intended to address the delay in reviewing development applications in hopes of expediting housing reviews.

“Whenever the council holds stuff up, even if it's two or more weeks, the applicant who is paying the professionals to be part of that is still paying their people, and that costs money,” Nugent said. “This is a great step to be cognizant of recognizing that process.”

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