An old Missoula controversy is new again.

There’s a good reason why accessory dwelling units, also known as mother-in-law apartments, are so controversial. It’s because so few of them are actually occupied by anyone’s mother-in-law. They essentially change single-family neighborhoods into multi-family neighborhoods – rezoning by another name.

Rezoning, of course, is a necessary process that must happen every so often as neighborhoods grow and demographics change. But Missoula just went through the painful process of approving new zoning regulations a few short years ago, and the ADU issue was satisfactorily settled.

Back in 2009, remember, the city was grappling with new zoning regulations, of which ADUs proved to be one of the most contentious. Ultimately, Missoula City Council members hit upon a workable solution: allow ADUs in neighborhoods zoned “multi-family” without requiring a rezoning; don’t allow them at all in single-family neighborhoods.

Now, a new City Council is taking a second look. Last month the Plat, Annexation and Zoning committee kicked out a new proposal for ADUs to the full council that, thanks to an onslaught of heated opposition, was quickly kicked back.

Councilman Alex Taft had forwarded the original proposal to change Missoula’s ADU provisions so that so-called granny flats could be allowed in single-family neighborhoods. The revision would not spill over into the codes covering planned neighborhood clusters, which is the term given to neighborhoods in which lots are divided in order to accommodate new homes by another means. The ADU proposal would apply a different set of rules to ADUs depending on whether they were free-standing or attached to an existing home, and would cap the new units at 800 feet. The proposal would also require an extra parking spot on the property.

And, Taft has explained, it would increase the stock of affordable housing in Missoula.

But that’s debatable. While there’s always a need for affordable housing, will allowing ADUs in more neighborhoods really make a significant dent in the demand for affordable housing? Missoula’s real estate market is not exactly booming right now, and there’s currently an array of affordable housing opportunities in Missoula for retirees, student renters and couples just starting out. These housing options may not be in single-family neighborhoods, but they’re out there.

And while building a rental unit in the backyard may be an attractive option for those property owners who can afford to do so, it comes at the expense of neighbors who enjoy the housing density they already have – and who should have a say in any changes that alter the character of their neighborhoods. That’s what the re-zoning process is for.

In fact, Councilman Jon Wilkins thinks the new ADU proposal could require a redraw of Missoula’s zoning maps – an action that must be proceeded by public notices and hearings.

This week, council members will dip a toe into the ADU controversy again when they discuss whether the ADU proposal warrants a full public notification process. Any full vote on the ADUs is still probably months upon months away.

But City Council members could save themselves a lot of time and trouble if they accept that ADUs are a subject that has been taken up and dealt with already, and give this proposal a conclusive death.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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