Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) A protest petition submitted hours before a final decision was planned regarding the rezone of a property off Russell Street nearly prompted the City Council on Monday night to send the request back to committee.

But in the end the council voted against it, which forced a final vote to approve or deny the rezone. Approval passed 8-1, well beyond the super-majority needed to overcome the neighborhood's petition of protest.

“In front of us is a rezone request,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “The sooner they get those (homes) built, the sooner families can move into those places. The growth policy and downtown master plan looked at this place for more density.”

Idaho Street Holdings LLC sought to rezone a 29,000 square-foot property at Inez and Idaho streets from residential to community business. Under state law, City Council can only approve or deny a rezone request. It cannot place any conditions upon it.

As approved, the zoning change shrinks the amount of square feet needed to support a dwelling unit. Current zoning requires 20,000 square feet per unit and, given the size of the lot, only one unit could be constructed.

But the approved change will allow one unit per 1,000 square feet for a total of 29 dwelling units. However, the developer plans no more than 16 units.

“This is a valid place to rezone,” said Dan Cederberg, a member of the development team. “It was recommended by staff. It was unanimously recommended by the planning board. It meets the growth policy and master plan, and it allows for 15 to 16 units to be added to the inventory of Missoula's housing. We think we've done everything correctly.”

Neighbors expressed concern over the increase in density. Doug Davis, a resident who opposed the zoning change, accused the city of spot zoning and called it “zoning creep” into an established neighborhood.

“What we're requesting is that you vote this down or send it back to committee to do proper planning of our neighborhood,” said Davis. “This is (zoning) one parcel at a time. I believe you have a legal and moral obligation to reject this.”

The City Attorney's Office disputed the term spot zoning, suggesting that every zoning change could be deemed as such. City staff noted that the zoning change and planned project meets the goals of the growth policy.

The property also sits within the boundaries of the Downtown Master Plan, supporters said. A number of other city plans call for increased density at the location as well.

“This is an area that's right for more dense building,” said Anderson. “You can see there's more density immediately around this particular parcel.”

The debate punctuates the friction between the need for housing in Missoula and a neighborhood's opposition to sudden changes in zoning. The city is working toward code reform in an effort to bring its growth policy in line with zoning to avoid such contentious debates.

But the result of that work may be years away. Council member Gwen Jones sought to send the decision back to committee to give the city time to validate the legitimacy of the petition. But in the end the petition was deemed valid, forcing a vote on the issue, which required a super-majority to pass.

“What's before us is a rezone, and it's no different than anything we've had in the past,” said council member Mirtha Becerra.

The development will consist of duplexes similar in size to the existing single-family homes around it. The project will have one four-bedroom unit, eight three-bedroom units and six two-bedroom units.

The units will range in size from 1,000-1,400 square feet and the developers plan to market them at around $400,000 - below the median price of housing in Missoula.

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