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Close Quarters

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There was an odd sense of familiarity to Monday night's City Council meeting. Perhaps it was the eerily prescient episode of "The X-Files" that aired the night before.

In the latest episode, FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder go undercover into one of the nation's premiere gated communities in San Diego to investigate the unexplained disappearances of several residents. In this conformist utopia, being "neighborly" translates into a fanatical vigilance for burned-out porch lights, unswept sidewalks, and mailboxes painted desert sienna instead of desert sage. Even a driveway basketball hoop is enough to warrant a sentence of death by gruesome mutilation.

"Rules are rules," asserts the president of the fictitious Arcadia Falls Neighborhood Association, thumping a leather-bound volume of covenants, conditions and restrictions. "It may not sound like much, a basketball hoop. But from there it's just a few short steps to spinning daisy reflectors and a bass boat in the driveway."

In other words, anarchy as we know it. Surely, no one (reputable, anyway) is claiming that the latest proposed amendments to the city's subdivision and zoning regulations are threatening to transform Missoula into the next gated, antiseptic cul-de-sac of tomorrow. Still, Missoula developer Perry Ashby did notice that the new hillside design standards include a requirement that "structures be of earth tone colors to better conform to the natural landscape."

"Let's define earth tones," said Ashby. "That can mean green in the summer or white in the winter."

Inevitably, when you draft a public document of this scope and magnitude, you're bound to turn an ambiguous phrase or two. Subdivision and zoning regs by their very nature can be slippery slopes to negotiate, despite two years' worth of public hearings and more than 50 workshops with builders, real estate agents, architects, neighborhoods groups, and various and sundry acronymic governmental entities.

Still, Monday evening's major bone of contention seemed to pit the issue of affordable housing against the preservation of open spaces, a thorny debate that is roughly akin to arguing clean air versus clean water.

Under the microscope was the question of so-called "density bonuses," which would allow developers to increase the maximum number of dwellings per acre by up to 50 percent within the city's designated Urban Growth Area, as well as in areas where current zoning laws allow a density of eight housing units or less.

In layman's terms, this would permit developers to build more houses on less land, an idea that doesn't sit well in certain parts of Missoula, specifically, in the Target Range area just west of Reserve Street.

Calling the proposed zoning changes "suspect," Target Range resident Wally Sept asked that the council put any new regulations to a public vote before they're approved. He said the council is threatening to turn the Target Range area into "a cadaver waiting to be carved up" by developers.

"We don't need sewers," he said. "We need to be reinfranchised."

Gerard Berens, president of the Target Range Homeowners Association, presented the council with a survey of 159 households in the Target Range area. Citing concerns about increased traffic, crime and threats to their rural way of life, Berens said that 98 percent of survey respondents were opposed to increasing the density of houses to three units per acre. A full 96 percent were opposed to any density increases at all.

Meanwhile, another Target Range resident, John Spangler, questioned the very objectivity of the survey, calling it "misleading and untruthful." He cited a flyer that was circulated along with the survey that read, "City wants to turn Target Range into University District."

At loggerheads with the notion of lower density zoning were those who testified in favor of more dense development within the growth area. Ed Mayer of the Missoula Housing Authority asked that the new regulations be sent back to committee for further review, saying that his agency is only now just compiling data from housing surveys conducted for the city's consolidated plan. Mayer argued that the new subdivision regs would effectively reduce the density by one-third on what little land is still available for affordable housing.

Likewise, Jim Morton of the Human Resources Council said that the escalating cost of land is forcing nonprofit, residential developers to purchase commercial properties, which can run more than $200,000 an acre. Approximately three-quarters of the land available for development lies on hillside slopes that would be excluded from development under this new proposal.

"We need some density if we're going to house the people who work here," said Missoula real estate agent Collin Bangs, who added that the vast majority of Missoula residents cannot afford the average price of a home. In fact, approximately one-half of all Missoula residents are eligible for low-income housing.

It was soon obvious that these new regulations weren't going anywhere except back to committee for further regurgitation. This will allow staff some time to consider the article cited by council member Dave Harmon from the February 12 edition of the Ashville Citizen-Times. Its headline reads: "China threatens death for illegal developers."

Hey, at least no one's mentioned plastic pink flamingos yet.


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