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Zoning reform bills pass Montana House with bipartisan support

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Posted at 6:27 PM, Apr 14, 2023

HELENA — A set of bills aimed at increasing Montana’s housing supply have passed another key step at the state Legislature.

This week, three bills making big changes in how cities handle zoning passed through the House, each with broad margins and bipartisan support.

“This has been incredible: to be able to work with folks on the right, on the left – people who usually don't work together,” said Kendall Cotton, president and CEO of the Frontier Institute. “But it seems like Montanans of all political stripes are coming together on this issue of housing affordability.”

The Frontier Institute is a Montana think tank that has identified housing as one of the priority issues for this legislative session, and they highlighted Senate Bills 382, 323 and 245 as important proposals for addressing it.

“You know, Montana's been discovered,” Cotton said. “We're growing really fast. Lots of people are moving here. How can we make sure that Montana stays feeling like Montana and doesn't become like California as we grow?”

The three bills mirror recommendations that came from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force last year, of which Cotton was a member.

  • SB 382, sponsored by Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, passed 95-5. It would fully overhaul cities’ land-use planning process. As part of that, it would require that cities adopt five recommendations from a list of 14 strategies for increasing housing access. The bill would apply to cities with more than 5,000 people that are in counties with more than 70,000 people.
  • SB 323, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Trebas, R-Great Falls, passed 72-26. It would require that cities with more than 5,000 residents allow duplexes anywhere that single-family residences are allowed. The bill previously would have required larger cities to also allow triplexes and fourplexes, but it was amended in the House Local Government Committee.
  • SB 245, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, passed 96-4. It would require cities to allow multi-unit housing developments in commercial zones. The bill would apply to municipalities designated as urban areas that have more than 7,000 residents.

Cotton said these bills would encourage denser development within cities, rather than expansion on the outskirts.
“Allowing a little bit of that gentle density is going to allow our cities to catch up to population growth, build the homes that we need to build for a lot of the folks moving here and create that pathway to homeownership for young families and renters,” he said.

The Montana League of Cities and Towns, which represents the state’s municipalities, worked closely on SB 382.

“We’ve got to fix the process,” said executive director Kelly Lynch. “Our statutes are really antiquated and outdated, and SB 382 really tries to put them in a much more reasonable, thoughtful way of walking through the process.”

But during the process, the League expressed more concerns about other zoning-related bills that they said would impose top-down mandates on cities.

Lynch said these bills have been amended in ways that will make them easier for local governments to implement.

“Our position has been that our cities have already been working on these issues for a lot of years,” she said. “We have planners who go to the national conferences. These kinds of discussions have been happening for a long time. But when you go through that local public process, it takes a lot longer. But I think most of them are already in a situation, are very close to having these same types of regulations, especially in the form that the bills are in now.”

Because all three bills were amended while they were in the House, they will now return to the Senate, where senators will decide whether to accept the changes. If the Senate concurs with the House amendments, the bills will go to the governor’s desk. If they reject the amendments, a conference committee will be appointed to iron out the differences.