Missoula debates accessory dwelling units again 

Newly elected City Councilman Alex Taft's first order of business on Missoula's governing body is a whopper. He's proposing that the council allow accessory dwelling units—or "granny flats," as they're sometimes calledon properties in neighborhoods that currently only allow single-family housing.

Missoula zoning regulations forbid more than one housing unit on parcels in single-family residential neighborhoods. Taft proposes changing that to allow one additional rental unit, as long as the owner lives in the other. "I would be quite satisfied with what we put forward," he says.

A 4 percent rental vacancy rate can make it tough to find affordable apartments in Missoula. And purchasing a home on the area's average income isn't easy. Taft sees his proposal as a way to beef up affordable housing stock.

Accessory units, however, have long been contentious in Missoula. Council last took up the issue in 2009, when the city rewrote its zoning regulations. Lawmakers heard from locals who worried that increasing population density would change the character of their neighborhoods. Council agreed to compromise on the issue, allowing accessory units in areas that already allowed multi-family housing, such as Missoula's Westside. Areas zoned for single-family homes, such as the University District, remained off limits to granny flats.

Councilman Jon Wilkins opposed accessory units in single-family districts in 2009 and does now. "You're doing away with single-family neighborhoods," he says.

Taft's referral is further complicated by the fact that in January, Montana's attorney general issued an opinion that mandates property owners go through a subdivision review process before creating more than one detached unit on any given parcel, even if local zoning regulations say otherwise.

The mandate means Taft's referral could encourage the conversion of basements into a separate living quarters or attaching apartments to existing homes. Missoulians who want to build a detached unit would still have to go through the headache of subdivision reviews.

The Montana Legislature will likely address conflicting development mandates during the 2013 legislative session. In the meantime, the city will begin what will no doubt be another long conversation about how the Garden City should grow best. "We're going to get a lot of advice from the community," Taft says.

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