Wishing there was a little more depth to your night than CSI-Miami can offer? Looking for something to argue over other than the relative merits and demerits of the Yankee dynasty? Here’s a proposition: Get off of the couch/bar stool/Stairmaster and go hassle the City Council candidates at one of their many upcoming forums. What’s that you say? You’re feeling a little bit uncomfortable at the prospect of asking a question and getting an indecipherable answer from those silver-tongued politicos? Don’t worry, we have no intention of sending you out there cold. That’s why we’ve put together a little lexicon of Missoula political speak. From the mundane to the obscure, here are eight terms defined so you can ask the right questions and understand the answers.
Affordable housing: As County Commissioner Barbara Evans likes to say, affordable housing doesn’t have a lot of meaning, since what may be affordable to some may not be to others. Nonetheless, most candidates for City Council agree that the rate of home ownership in Missoula is dismal—only 51 percent of Missoulians own their own homes, compared to 68 percent nationally. The simple fact is that the majority of Missoulians don’t make enough to afford the $161,500 price tag of the average home. Whether homes are too expensive or Missoulians don’t get paid enough is up for debate—and you’ll see lots of debate over this in the upcoming forums. Just remember, whatever you do, don’t let a candidate off the hook by letting them tell you that she/he is a fan of Habitat for Humanity’s work. Make a candidate point out specific affordable housing projects or programs (either locally or otherwise) that encourage home ownership.
PNCs: These are planned neighborhood clusters. PNCs are one of the tools the City Council implemented in 1999 to shape development. PNCs give developers leeway when it comes to where on a piece of property they can build homes—mostly this means clustering homes together and reducing the space, or setback, between the homes while still providing the usual setbacks around the development. PNCs are meant as a trade off—developers get to cluster homes, but they have to let the neighbors comment on what they have planned beforehand. While they’re allowed to put in their two cents, neighbors don’t have the power to kill a project.
Density bonuses: Like PNCs, density bonuses are another tool to come out of the late-’90s. They allow developers to increase housing density on a piece of property if the developers allow the city and the neighborhood to take a look at what they have planned. The idea is to maximize the permitted density of areas and encourage development where infrastructure, like sewers and fire and police service, is already in place. Like PNCs, density bonuses don’t allow neighbors to halt a development.
Non-conforming lots: Many Missoula houses are built on more than one lot with the boundary line between the two lots running right through the center of the house. But state law allows a property owner to reposition the boundary line, freeing up property on which to build a second house. The new lot is called a non-conforming because it may not jive with Missoula’s zoning laws, but is allowed because state law trumps local law. Many Missoulians are hoping the City Council can somehow curb the proliferation of non-conforming lots because they believe the extra housing going up—usually those houses that pop up between an alley and existing house—are eroding neighborhood character and available parking. Infill: Simple, but controversial. Infill is the practice of filling in holes (read: undeveloped lots, vacant buildings) inside city limits with something more useful. Most often this means adding housing and, according to many, eroding more neighborhood character.
Occupancy standards: Some Missoulians hate the idea of half a dozen renters packed into a single house. Last year, and before that in 1996, a group of University-area residents proposed occupancy standards that would have limited the number of non-related individuals who can live together. Both versions of the occupancy ordinance were sunk amid claims that the ordinances were discriminatory. But like a phoenix from the ashes, they have surfaced again as a major campaign issue.
Taxes: OK, everybody knows what taxes are. How they relate to City Council is a different story. Council has the power to raise property taxes by an amount equal to half the rate of inflation—usually a little more than 1 percent a year. The state has given Council the power to surpass this 1 percent limit to cover increases in city health insurance premiums. Other than health costs, the city can’t levy any more money from property taxes—this is why they’re asking the voters to agree to raise property taxes for $8 million to fix the pools.
Non-partisan elections: This is just about the only non-growth related issue the candidates want to talk about. Local law makes it impossible for candidates to tell you their party affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t hint at which team they bat for in interviews with the Indy. Many candidates contend that voters can’t make educated decisions without knowing party affiliation. Many are also in favor of simplifying their campaigns by being able to say:
“Don’t vote for the other guy, he’s a tax-and-spend Democrat/right-wing Republican.”
If you want to put your new jargon to use, show up at one of these City Council candidate forums and ask, “Do you like how PNCs and density bonuses are shaping infill?”
•Thursday, Oct. 24, noon, University Center Atrium (Wards 3 and 4).
•Tuesday, Oct. 28, noon, University Center Atrium (Wards 1 and 2).
•Tuesday, Oct. 28, 7 p.m., Chief Charlo School (Wards 4 and 5).
•Thursday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m., Lewis and Clark School (Ward 4).
•There are also two community meetings to discuss growth policies to which candidates are invited on Tuesday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m. at Washington Middle School, and Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 7 p.m. at Prescott School.
To find out what ward you’re in, call the city clerk’s office at 523-4904.