In the face of strong protest, the Missoula City Council voted late Monday to adopt an ordinance that would allow – upon approval and within guidelines – accessory dwelling units in all residential districts, a volatile subject.
“It seems to take a charge of dynamite to really get people involved,” said Councilman Ed Childers, who supported the measure.
The issue packed council chambers, and filled part of an adjacent conference room, where members of the public followed the meeting on television. By Councilman Jon Wilkins’ count, at least 12 people spoke in favor of the measure and 36 opposed it at the meeting that lasted until nearly midnight.
The vote was 6-4, with councilors Wilkins, Dave Strohmaier, Adam Hertz and Caitlin Copple voting no; councilors Cynthia Wolken and Dick Haines were absent. To take effect, the ordinance to allow accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, must be approved at its second and final reading on Monday, May 6.
The matter has been in the works for nearly a year, and some people accused the council of failing to listen to them along the way. Councilors who supported the measure, though, said they had adjusted the ordinance based on public comment; they were seeking reasoned arguments, not just counting the numbers of people pro or con; and they had election mandates.
“Just because you disagree does not mean that you’re not listening,” said Councilwoman Marilyn Marler.
In fact, Councilman Childers listened and heard problems – to which he believes the ordinance offers solutions. People don’t like the extra cars that come with additional rentals? Well, the ordinance puts in place a parking requirement for those who want to build an ADU, Childers said.
“By and large, people say owner-occupied housing is better for a neighborhood than rental housing. And this ordinance will require owner-occupied housing,” Childers said.
Some opponents accused councilors of pushing personal agendas rather than heeding the will of the people, but at least three of the council members backing the measure were elected with wide margins. Councilman Jason Wiener said ADUs were a campaign priority for him, he made it known and voters chose him with two-thirds of the vote.
“I have for a long time advocated that we liberalize the regulations on accessory dwelling units,” Wiener said. “I have a particular affinity for the ones that exist within the footprint of a building.”
That’s because Wiener himself lived in a basement apartment for years, and he paid just $325 for rent and utilities. The cost was affordable for him, and it supplemented the income of his landlady, an arrangement that offered them both dignity and quality of life, he said.
As preliminarily approved, the ordinance allows property owners who live in any residential district to add an interior or detached unit within guidelines. Some of the general requirements are as follows, and some fees have yet to be determined, according to Development Services:
• Property owners who already have an ADU and want to operate above board may apply for a permit in the grace period.
• New interior units that don’t add square footage to the main home don’t require approval by the council, but do require building code and zoning review along with related fees.
• New interior units that add square footage to the home and new detached units require “conditional use” approval by the council after notice to neighbors and a public hearing. A conditional use permit runs $1,664 plus mailing costs for notifications.
“This is the same level of scrutiny that we give to bars and power plants, among other things,” Wiener said.
The ordinance sets out standards such as maximum square footage and design features such as roof pitch and trim. It requires homeowners to register with the city annually and mandates one owner reside on the property in either the main home or accessory unit, although there’s a question about whether the city will be able to enforce that rule.
A protest petition drive is underway, and if successful, a supermajority of the council will need to vote yes to adopt the ordinance. A supermajority is two-thirds of those present and voting, said City Clerk Marty Rehbein.
Rehbein also said her office will continue to accept protest petitions until the last minute. Staff are doing data entry and analysis to determine whether the protest is sufficient to force the supermajority vote, but she doesn’t anticipate the review or ongoing results will be available before the May 6 council meeting.
“I don’t think we’re going to release a running total,” Rehbein said. “When we’re done ... we’ll present our final numbers.”
At the meeting Monday, one projection that both opponents and proponents made is that ADUs won’t suddenly pop up everywhere. Councilwoman Copple, who represents Ward 4 and opposed the ordinance, said the demand for them isn’t great in the Lewis and Clark neighborhood, where she lives.
Plus, Copple said, “I’m not convinced it’s a meaningful way to solve the affordable housing problem.”
Some proponents agreed the ordinance wouldn’t affect a large group of people. But, some said, it would make a big difference in a small number of people’s lives and their abilities to live in their own homes as they age, for instance.
At Development Services, Ana Aronofsky said members of the public have called with “very general requests for information,” but no one is standing in line to build an ADU.
“We have not heard anything like that, nobody that is waiting to apply for permits,” Aronofsky said.