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A hotly contested issue in Missoula neighborhoods just a few years ago, the City of Missoula is now considering a more streamlined and less expensive process to allow property owners to build Accessory Dwelling Units, or "mother-in-law apartments," on residential lots.

The City of Missoula is looking at eliminating some red tape and streamlining the process that allows people to build Accessory Dwelling Units — sometimes called granny flats or mother-in-law apartments — on their property.

The move, part of broader changes to the city zoning ordinance, would save each applicant nearly $1,000 in administrative fees as well as time-consuming review processes for both applicants and city staff.

But critics say it eliminates a much-needed public review process.

These backyard cottages often are garages converted into apartments or added on to the backs of houses in residential neighborhoods. After a very contentious public debate five years ago, ADUs were allowed everywhere in Missoula as long as they received a conditional use permit, which requires a hearing before the City Council.

However, in the past five years all 17 ADU applications have been approved without any substantial conditions to the proposal.

The City Council and the Planning Board soon will consider a recommendation from the city’s planning office to remove the conditional use requirement.

The ADU discussion comes as part of the city's wider plan to revise the entire zoning ordinance. The city also is looking at changing rules for everything from bed and breakfasts to tourist homes to cideries to townhome development parking.

“There’s obviously a monetary and a time cost with the applicant making the proposal (for an ADU),” said City Council member John DiBari. “Under this new proposal, the review would be administrative, and wouldn’t come before the council.”

DiBari said he generally agrees with the planning office’s idea to create a more efficient process.

“Part of the thinking is we’ve had a five-year trial period of putting in place a social contract with how we deal with ADUs, and that trial period has gone very well,” he said. “It’s shown us that when people come forward with proposals, they fit with the neighborhood. There’s not an overwhelming outcry from neighborhoods that cause council to apply substantive conditions. If we are accepting this five-year trial period, accessory dwelling units are being integrated into neighborhoods and there’s not huge issues with them.”

Laval Means, the city’s planning services manager, said each conditional use permit costs applicants nearly $1,000. That fee will be reduced to simply the postage it takes to notify neighbors. She also said regulations — such as a policy requiring the applicant to live on the property — will continue to prevent ADUs from becoming rampant.

Means doesn’t think there will be a flood of new proposals if the policy is adopted. Because it is an amendment to the city’s zoning code, it has to be approved by both the Planning Board and the whole City Council through public hearings.

“It’s an efficiency and streamlining thing,” she said. “We still feel like there’s still those standards in place and plenty of hoops for applicants to jump through. There’s still going to be considerations.”

Gwen Jones, a City Council member representing Ward 3 (which includes much of the University District and the Slant Street neighborhoods) said she is “strongly opposed” to rescinding the conditional use requirements.

“I have had many conversations with constituents who feel strongly about ADUs,” she said. “I have also observed that as ADUs are built, and follow all regulations, they are gradually being accepted into the neighborhoods. The Conditional Use Process has been valuable for creating the community dialogue to broach and digest change. I think it is still in process, and needs to continue. Missoula is changing rapidly, and to shut down this public dialogue is a mistake.”

Jones said she doesn’t think the city is to a point where ADUs can be approved without the consent of the City Council, but it may come in the future as the community evolves.

“I see the conditional use process' inclusion in the ADU law as a ‘social contract’ (and) to pull it so soon after the law passed could be perceived City Council selling a bill of goods to a neighborhood,” she explained in a letter to city staff. “Just because City Council has approved 17 and not made substantial changes does not mean that public hearings should no longer take place, or that circumstances will arise which would change the course of a decision.”

Jones believes that public hearings are important for creating awareness, fostering education and understanding, and providing a forum for participation.

Public hearings "are valuable for neighbors to voice their concerns and for applicants to appreciate and understand their impact on a neighborhood,” she said.

Means and DiBari both believe more ADUs could have a positive effect on the city’s housing crunch. Home prices have gone up more than 27 percent in Missoula since 2010 while wages have stagnated, largely due to a lack of supply.

“It’s one tool in a toolbox of many things, and we need to be looking at all of those,” Means said.

“ADUs are a good opportunity to build housing that doesn’t eat up a bunch of land,” DiBari said. “They are an efficient use of infrastructure.”

He said the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development has a working group that is looking at solutions to the housing crunch, and that group generally views ADUs favorably. However, DiBari doesn’t expect a flood of new applications.

“I don’t see that there’s a whole bunch of latent interest in the community to where if you all the sudden take away the conditional use permit, they’ll be busting down the doors,” he said. “Over time, there might be an interest in doing more of these, especially if it’s widely known that there’s an opportunity to help alleviate the housing crunch. And a lot of these are in desirable neighborhoods.

"But I don’t see a gazillion of these things happening all the sudden. But people obviously would save a thousand bucks on the conditional use permit.”

The City Council approved ADUs in all neighborhoods on a 7-5 vote in May 2013 after many heated public discussions. At the time, many property owners believed their property values would plummet if neighbors built ADUs.

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