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Housing, development bills progressing through Montana Legislature

Montana State Capitol
Posted at 6:27 PM, Mar 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-21 21:02:47-04

HELENA — Montana lawmakers have taken up a wide range of bills this session that are aimed at tackling the ongoing need for housing in the state. Now, some of the proposals have cleared their first chamber and are under consideration in the second.

“I'm just excited that we're talking about housing, and we've seen some real movement on addressing this issue that's affecting a lot of Montanans across the state,” said Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus.

Mandeville is sponsoring Senate Bill 382, which passed the Senate 44-6 earlier this month. It’s scheduled for a hearing in the House Local Government Committee on Thursday.

SB 382 would make a substantial overhaul to the rules for local land use planning.

“If we can mesh these acts together a bit better and do our planning on the front end, we're going to have a more predictable process both for the developers and the neighborhoods, and we're going to have a more streamlined process,” Mandeville said.

The bill would apply to cities and towns with more than 5,000 residents that are in counties with more than 70,000 residents. Currently, that would include Billings, Laurel, Bozeman, Belgrade, Missoula, Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Great Falls and Helena.

One of the main provisions would require those municipalities to adopt five out of a “menu” of 14 strategies for increasing housing access. Those strategies could include reducing minimum lot sizes, allowing multifamily development in more areas and loosening restrictions on accessory dwelling units.

“What we have on the menu option is really a list of best practices, I think,” said Mandeville.

Lawmakers have worked on SB 382 in conjunction with groups like the Montana League of Cities and Towns, and Mandeville said more amendments are likely to address stakeholders’ feedback.

Other bills that passed the Senate and are now awaiting hearings in the House include Senate Bill 245, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, which would require larger cities to allow multifamily housing and mixed-use development in commercial areas, and Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, which would require large cities to allow duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in residential areas.

Mandeville said he believes those bills will be complementary to SB 382.

“If we're encouraging housing in a responsible way and in areas that we've planned for housing, then that's a win-win-win,” he said.

Several housing-related bills failed to pass their first chamber before the deadline for general bills to move forward. They include House Bill 337, from Rep. Katie Zolnikov, Billings, which would have prohibited cities and towns from requiring a minimum lot size of more than 2,500 square feet, if a lot has both municipal water and sewer service, as well as House Bill 553, from Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, which would have required municipalities to allow accessory dwelling units in all residential areas and to treat manufactured homes the same as other homes in their zoning. Both of those bills were tabled in the House Local Government Committee.

Despite that, House Speaker Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said Tuesday that he believes many in the House are open to taking a look at the ideas that came over from the Senate.

These are far from the only housing bills that lawmakers are talking about. Legislators have introduced a number of proposals that would direct funding or offer tax credits for housing. Because those bills deal with money, they have a later transmittal deadline and will have to clear the first chamber by April 3.