Partygoers usurped the 400 block of University Avenue Sunday afternoon for a two-hour back-to-school bash. If the raucous celebration exceeded the city’s 60-decibel noise limit, no one complained or dialed 911. Instead, the nearly 100 partygoers, mostly UM students and university area homeowners, packed the street laughing and licking at dripping cones. Dogs sniffed for fallen mouthfuls and kids rode by on skateboards. A jazz ensemble played swing tunes at the threshold of the University Congregational Church.
As the ice cream was scooped out, it seemed the two often cantankerous camps—young student renters and older homeowners—were nothing but thoughtful neighbors at a community social. This was the idea envisioned by its organizers: Forget about the heated, year-long debate surrounding the occupancy standards and get to know each other as people, not demographics.
“It’s a real step toward how we should act to neighbors,” said Ward Three Councilman John Torma, who spent the afternoon elbow deep in eight tubs of ice cream. “We have considerable ground to gain, but this was a couple of good steps forward. I am really pleased.”
The next day, however, those two steps forward were matched by a couple steps back.
At Monday’s City Council meeting, the neighborly feeling Torma described melted away as angry citizens voiced their opinions that the mayor had made a massive mistake in vetoing the recently passed standards and challenged him to “find a solution that works.”
As promised, Mayor Mike Kadas vetoed the occupancy standards Friday, writing, “The fundamental problem is that the ordinance does not deal with the troublemakers nor does it change any behaviors.”
Kadas went on to explain in his veto that the “fair and appropriate” way to deal with unruly behavior is by enforcing the numerous ordinances already on the books.
Two week earlier, Kadas outlined to those at the City Council meeting the city’s ongoing efforts to combat the problems of discourteous neighbors and neighborhood degradation.
Roundabouts have been put into slow traffic around university area intersections. The University has founded a student “renter center” that encourages responsible tenants and landlords. The police have developed “quality of life” responses to track repeat nuisance offenders. As for overgrown lawns, loud parties, abandoned cars and garbage heaps, Missoula has tomes of ordinances to deal with such problems.
“I don’t even know how many ordinances there are for these problems,” says Deputy City Attorney Susan Firth, who was asked by Ward One Councilwoman Lois Herbig to compile a list of ordinances and statutes that apply to concerns raised by the proponents of the standards.
The 20-plus page list, which Firth says is not meant to be exhaustive, contains laws addressing lawn and side walk care, trash removal and a range of other disturbances. Some citizens argue that these ordinances are never enforced and they don’t see how that will change.
“It’s ridiculous to have all these laws for dogs, garbage and whatever and then they’re not enforced,” says Herbig. “We’re going to put the weight on the administration to enforce these. They always say that they don’t have enough money and not enough personnel. Well, they need to let us know what is needed so we can move ahead.”
Herbig went on to say that some of these ordinances may need to be amended so they are no longer complaint driven. She believes enforcement is the city’s job, not the citizens’ job. If it is up to Missoulians to report their neighbors’ violations, Herbig says it will “set neighbor against neighbor.”
But the mayor remains skeptical that simply adding a few more diligent enforcement officers will solve all the problems.
“Some of these things are difficult to enforce,” he says. “Noise for instance. We have a noise ordinance on the books, but it is somewhat subjective. It requires some technical expertise to enforce it. It requires timing to enforce it and so it’s just hard to do.”
Kadas believes that while Missoula can still find a way to better deal with these issues, the town will never be a utopia. Budget constrains will always make even the enforceable ordinances hard to enforce.
“We can’t satisfy everyone and there is always going to be someone to complain about something,” he says. “Our goal should be to get the best use of the resources we have and provide the most valuable services to our citizens. But that doesn’t mean that everybody will be happy because on the other end, we’d have to raise taxes to pay for all this or we’d have to close a fire station or eliminate a park to provide more police presence to take care of this.”
Ward Six Councilman Clayton Floyd, a proponent of the occupancy standards, expressed regret over the misunderstanding that surrounds the debate. He says dying lawns and loud parties are only symptoms of the larger problem: the trend of owner-occupied homes being converted into rentals. The standards were never meant to specifically address these symptoms, but to get at their root, he says.
The mayor’s veto and the subsequent failure to overturn the veto have evicted the issue from the Council’s agenda—for now. With words of a citizen sponsored initiative flying (“Take it to the voters and let’s see what they say,” says homeowner Anita Anderson), the topic of occupancy standards will continue to draw a crowd.