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Does meaning matter?

City Council

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Imagine a world in which the words “constipation” and “tyranny” were summarily removed from dictionaries. Would the countless people plagued by what those words represent suddenly find themselves relieved of age-old woes?

That question, in a roundabout way, was answered Dec. 4 by Missoula’s City Council, which voted 10-2 to remove two definitions from the Missoula County Growth Policy 2005 Update before approving it. The Update, a non-regulatory document that evaluates Missoula County growth issues and needs and sets broad goals, has languished in committee for several months. County commissioners adopted the policy back in May, but Council got hung up on two phrases defined in the document: “inclusionary zoning” and “transfer of development rights.”

Inclusionary zoning refers to regulations that require developers to include affordable housing in new developments, a growth tool many communities have used to address skyrocketing housing costs. Transfer of development rights is a provision that allows landowners to shift development rights from one property, where low density is desired, to another property where denser development is preferred.

Both ideas are controversial and can be approached in any number of ways. And regardless of whether the terms are defined in the growth policy, at any time City Council or county commissioners could launch a discussion about whether either might help soothe Missoula’s growing pains.

That’s what Council President Ed Childers and Heidi Kendall, chairwoman of the Plat, Annexation and Zoning Committee, said Dec. 4 after Kendall offered to remove the term’s definitions (though the terms themselves still appear in the document) as a consensus-building move to allay the concerns of council members who fear that defining the words will somehow obligate the city to enact them.

Still, Ward 2’s Don Nicholson and John Hendrickson voted against the policy.

“I think we’ve been had,” Nicholson said after the vote. He says affordable housing urgently deserves discussion in Missoula, but that defining the words in the growth policy was “opening Pandora’s box.”

HomeWORD’s Judy Smith took the opportunity to remind Council that there’s never been an open discussion of the undefined terms and their potential implications—never mind applications—in Missoula.

“Just because you don’t have these definitions,” she clarified to the Independent, “doesn’t mean the discussion about them doesn’t need to happen.”

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