Passing the cluster buck 

At home, and on hold, in a PNC

A white picket fence surrounds the front of the Williamson home. So do pansies, petunias and daisies. A green lawn runs up to a front porch. There sit two wooden rocking chairs dressed in brightly colored cushions. The home is 2 1/2 years old. The Williamsons—Jennifer, her husband (who wishes to remain anonymous), daughter Paige, age 2, and “another one on the way”—are the home’s first owners. The home is in a development designated as a planned neighborhood cluster (PNC).

Because the two-story River Road house is in a higher-density development, it was affordable for the family. PNCs, though, have been regularly opposed in City Council and committee meetings by other homeowners for at least the past year. As of last Monday night’s City Council meeting, the development of new PNCs of five or fewer units is on a six-month hold. Council members plan to use the time to review the city’s PNC guidelines, which many neighborhood forum leaders have vigorously protested. In particular, current PNC regulations fail to account for public protest.

Jennifer Williamson believes the moratorium is a form of economic discrimination.

“I don’t think the people who are against the PNCs would believe it’s a class issue,” she says. “I think they would be surprised when they find out who it really is they’re excluding. It’s professional people.”

The PNC in which the Williamsons live is one of about 80 approved by the Office of Planning and Grants since 1999, says OPG’s Mike Barton. OPG approves the projects, and staff estimate that 80 percent of approved projects move forward. Barton says that the PNCs were expected to yield about 500 units in total, including approximately 250 single-family homes. Most PNCs, says Barton, involve boundary line relocations. Of the 40 pending boundary line relocation requests before the city, he says, two PNCs are either approved or pending. Because City Council decided to temporarily stop the development of smaller PNCs and may review boundary line requests themselves, the development of additional PNCs will be stalled and the number of housing units will decrease significantly, says Barton.

While city government attempts to sort through the rules governing development, it’s people like the Williamsons who lose. The Williamsons have lived in Missoula for 10 years. About four years ago, they started looking for a home.

“Once we got married,” says Jennifer Williamson, “we wanted to purchase a home. It was just impossible.”

They searched for an entire year. Every once in a while, “we would get discouraged and stop looking.”

The couple even considered moving away from Missoula.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to live somewhere where you can’t own a home,” she says.

The Williamsons aren’t at the bottom of Missoula’s wage scale. When they were house-hunting, Jennifer Williamson was working at the University of Montana. Her husband is a certified public accountant. Then, they had no children to support.

“We were young professionals, and really, for Missoula, we make pretty good money,” she says, resting a hand on her pregnant belly.

They calculated they were able to afford a purchase price of $143,000, maximum. The median price of a home in Missoula so far this year is $172,000. In 2001, the median price was $139,450, according to the Missoula County Association of Realtors.

But in 2001, house-hunting in Missoula was demoralizing. The Williamsons were shown homes for $150,000 “in absolute disrepair,” says Jennifer Williamson.

“You’d just come home in shock,” she says.

They finally found a home that they could afford, and it was in a new development, a PNC. They paid $143,000. Now they have the lifestyle they wanted. “We go to the Farmer’s Market,” she says. “We go to the Griz games. We go to the baseball games.” They jog on the trails and ride their bikes.

Their neighbors are a mix of young couples with small children, retirees or people who have already raised children and are still working.

If they hadn’t found an affordable home within a year, says Williamson, she believes they would be living in Spokane, Seattle or Boise by now. Because it was the higher-density development that made their home affordable, Williamson is offended by the rhetoric that surrounds the PNCs.

One citizen, opposing PNCs, described one such development in her neighborhood as “a cancer.” Clayton Floyd relayed a comment by a resident of his ward describing a PNC as so unsightly as to warrant being wrapped with crime scene tape.

“I don’t want crime scene tape hanging from my fence,” says Williamson.

Even the name of a neighborhood organization that has opposed PNCs, Save Our Neighborhoods, makes Williamson uneasy.

“Save the neighborhoods from Paige, me and my husband?” she asks. “Is that what that means? Or save the neighborhoods from my home?”

While options for owning a home in Missoula are limited, people who oppose PNCs, she says, are also against another low-income alternative: rentals.

At last Monday’s Council meeting, Alpine Builders’ Albert Zepeda said, “It seems like there has been a lot of talk and public comment on the fact that people are renting the homes that they’re building. And I have no idea why. Should we just kick all the renters out of Missoula?“

Ward 3’s Stacy Rye voted against the PNC moratorium, though she felt public pressure to support it. Fundamentally, however, she believes the moratorium is the wrong solution for Missoula’s rapid growth. It will hurt people who want to purchase homes at less than $160,000, says Rye. “Do we want all types of economic groups…to have the opportunity to live here?” she asks.

Ward 6’s Ed Childers points out that in his ward, the moratorium may have an unintended result. Zoning in much of Ward 6, between Reserve Street and Russell Street, allows for multiplexes.

“I prefer little houses on little lots to the multiplex alternative,” he said Monday night. But the “little houses on little lots” option—the PNC—is on hold.

When Jennifer Williamson and her husband attend neighborhood meetings, they are reluctant to share their address, which reveals that they live in the PNC development.

“We hesitate to mention what our address is because we know those people are so opposed to it,” she says.

However controversial, though, the homes in the Williamsons’ development don’t take long to sell. One home went up for sale about five months ago, says Williamson: “It sold within 24 hours.”

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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