If you have something new to say about backyard cottages or basement apartments, the Missoula City Council will be all ears Monday.
Council members have spent the better part of the past year hammering out an ordinance to let people build “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs, in more places in Missoula. At long last, the official public hearing is at the council’s 7 p.m. meeting Monday, April 22, at 140 W. Pine St.
The debate over the more commonly named granny suites has been fiery so far, and it’s exhausted people on both sides of the issue. Proponents and opponents have both argued their positions, and Councilman Jon Wilkins, who has led the opposition since before he was elected, said he hopes for a big turnout to protect “single family” neighborhoods from infill.
“This has been one of my big issues, is protecting these kinds of neighborhoods,” Wilkins said. “And I’m getting a little tired of it. It shouldn’t be something you have to do over and over again under different names and different ideas.”
Councilman Bob Jaffe, who was able to buy his first home because it had a rental unit, has been steering the proposed ordinance through its development. Jaffe said he doesn’t anticipate a vote Monday because council members still need to resolve a couple of issues – parking and leaves of absence for owners. But the bottom line with the ordinance?
“In the end, the difference is people will be able to have the right to build a rental apartment in a house they own or occupy. In the end, that’s what we’re talking about,” Jaffe said.
The little homes come in a couple of different forms.
On the one hand, there are apartments inside an existing home, like a studio garage or basement rental. More controversial are the backyard cottages, homes detached from the main house. The proposed ordinance gives detailed rules for building both down to the pitch of the roof for a detached cottage – “must be the same as the predominant roof pitch of the house.” (See related sidebar or read the full ordinance posted online with this story.)
Many granny suites are already built in Missoula, and the proposal sets a yearlong grace period for owners of the currently illegal units to obtain a permit. According to the draft ordinance, the small homes are being “unlawfully occupied ... (but) are filling a market demand for housing.”
One of the big arguments against the additions is some neighborhoods already struggle with too many cars and too little available parking. Councilman Jaffe said details on parking will be ironed out in an upcoming committee meeting.
Councilman Wilkins said he talks with young families who have moved into his neighborhood, the Lewis and Clark Neighborhood, and adequate parking is a major concern.
“They wanted a yard. The schools were important to them. The zoning is important to them,” Wilkins said. “They don’t want all that congestion. They want to be able to park in front of their own house and bring the groceries in.”
Ethel MacDonald, who supports the ordinance, agrees parking is an issue. MacDonald, however, doesn’t believe the solution is more parking spaces – it’s doing away with regulations that mandate more room for vehicles.
“If I had anybody else living here, I would really prefer somebody who didn’t have a car because this is a totally bikeable, walkable area of town,” said MacDonald, a cyclist herself. “And I think the extra cars are usually the problem.”
MacDonald lives in central Missoula, and she sees “little alley houses” throughout her neighborhood. She thinks they and some of the multifamily houses are good additions to the area.
“As always, people who are opposed to something usually come out in force while people who are OK with this change, who have ADUs in their neighborhood that they know work well, we tend to not get involved for various reasons,” MacDonald said.
And people who want the ordinance voted down have come out in force.
City clerk Marty Rehbein said she received an estimated 1,400 pages with names of opponents. Some are just postcards with one name, but others are sheets with multiple property owners listed.
“My staff are numbering each one so that we can track it and the signatures on it and scanning it,” Rehbein said.
Then, staff in Development Services are matching up the names with properties. If property owners representing 25 percent of the affected district protest, adoption of the ordinance will require a super majority – and essentially kill any changes. Calculating the protest, however, is complicated, and it can be done different ways since multiple districts are affected.
When signature validation is complete, Rehbein will present her findings to the council at a public meeting. She said the council will determine how to proceed with advice from the city attorney.
Wilkins said the timing has dragged on far too long, and he’s ready to see the death of the proposal. He doesn’t want to see infill in single family neighborhoods, and he doesn’t buy into the argument that infill decreases sprawl.
“I find that the neighbors, they give up and move,” Wilkins said. “And where do they move to? They move outside the city limits. I don’t believe that it stops sprawl. In fact, I believe it helps sprawl. We live in Montana. We don’t live in a big city.”