An anonymous group of Missoula city property owners want to put a stop to the process of updating the City’s zoning regulations.
Earlier this week the group began circulating a petition (click here for the PDF) that asks property owners to sign a formal “notice of protest” to the consolidated draft version of the zoning code.
“People are waking up to this (proposal) and they don’t know what to do,” said Lee Clemmensen, one of the people circulating the petition.
Clemmensen, who formerly served on the City’s Zoning Advisory Committee, says the petitioners are concerned that the proposed updates will allow unwanted infill and density that could drastically change the character of Missoula’s established neighborhoods. The petition specifically cites nine changes people could see to their neighborhood as a result of the updates, such as three-story buildings up to 35 feet.
Roger Millar, the director of the Office of Planning and Grants, says he has “no problem” with public protest of the document so long as it accurately conveys the content of the proposed updates.
“What we want to see is a reasoned discussion in our community and an informed discussion,” he said.
In some cases, the petition is “factually misleading,” he said.
For instance, the new ordinance on building height in single-family zoning districts is actually more restrictive than the current regulations, according to a statement released by OPG (PDF) in response to the petition’s assertions.
Part of the problem the public faces in having the discussion, Clemmensen says, is that the updates contain so many changes and the process has occurred so quickly that the public has not had the necessary time to digest or respond to the proposals.
“People feel they are constantly getting something new and they don’t like it,” Clemmensen said.
The petitioners hope to obtain the signatures of enough city property owners to affect the process. Under Montana state law, if at least 25 percent of the owners affected by the proposed zoning changes file a legal protest, the City Council is required to pass any changes to the city’s zoning code with a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting instead of a simple majority. This means eight “ayes” instead of the usual seven and it is not presently clear if that additional affirmative votes can be mustered.
If the petition fails, its backers are prepared to seek an injunction in the courts, Clemmensen said.
Exactly who those backers are however is unknown. The group released the petition anonymously—as it is legally allowed to do—and Clemmensen declined to name who wrote or organized the petition drive.
Former Ward 2 Council member Don Nicholson, who along with his wife is also circulating the petition, only received his copy on Monday. He too declined to name the organizers.
Current Ward 1 Council member Jason Wiener, who at the time of New West Missoula phone call did not know any people connected with the petition, was disappointed by the group’s approach.
“I think it is an intellectually dishonest piece of literature and its being circulated under a cloud of secrecy,” he said, while the drafting process of the proposed changes has been “open and transparent.”
As he has repeatedly throughout this nearly two year process, Weiner encouraged the public to make suggestions to the draft text that will help it garner broad support.
“My position from the beginning has been if people can identify changes to the text that will allow us to get more than seven votes, I’m willing to go in that direction,” he said.
“I remain optimistic that we can get eight or more votes,” he said in measured tone that didn’t quite ring with confidence.
The next Missoula Consolidated Planning Board public hearings on the proposed zoning ordinance are next Tuesday and Wednesday, April 21st and 22nd at 7:00 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at 140 West Pine.