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Billings City Council postpones major zoning vote pending revisions and talks with business groups

Posted at 11:26 PM, Nov 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 15:51:59-05

BILLINGS — The Billings City Council voted Monday to delay a vote on a major zoning change known as Project Re:Code, pending city staff meeting with the Montana Tavern Association and Home Builders Association of Billings to hear their concerns.

The Council voted 10-2 to delay a vote on the first reading of the massive revamp of the city zoning code until its next meeting on Dec. 14.

Councilmembers Danny Choriki and Denise Joy voted against the delay. Councilmembers Kendra Shaw, Mike Yakawich, Roy Neese, Frank Ewalt, Pam Purinton, Penny Ronning, Mike Boyette, Shaun Brown and Mayor Bill Cole voted in favor.

Project Re:Code is the first overhaul to the city's zoning code made in 45 years. It has taken about three and a half years to reach final approval.

The Council also directed staff to make small changes to specific sections of code, such as residential tree planting and planned neighborhood development restrictions.

The Project Re:Code agenda item was continued from a meeting on Nov. 9, when the project was up for first reading approval. In between the two meetings, the owners of bars, casinos, construction and landscaping companies had concerns with aspects of the code.

Councilmembers and city Zoning Coordinator Nicole Cromwell said they received an abundance of emails from these special interests airing their concerns with the proposed zoning code.

Councilmember Purinton gave the recommendation that Cromwell should meet virtually with the bar owners and home builders to hear their grievances before the Council's next meeting on Dec. 14.

In particular, casino owners took issue during public comment with the proposed distance of 350 feet a bar or casino's exterior would be located to the boundary residential district.

As well, members of the council and public were concerned about old bars or casinos that were encroached on by residential development and would no longer be in compliance with the new code. The issue is that the bar could stay open alongside the new development, as long as it is not severely damaged. If more than half of the building is damaged, the proposed code would not allow the business to rebuild, based on its location next to residential zoning.

The council directed the city's legal team to look into the legality of not allowing certain types of businesses to rebuild.

Darrell Tunnicliff, co-lead of the steering committee for Project Re:Code, said he was disappointed by the lack of understanding that he perceived in the zoning process. He said the steering committee and its sub-committees were all chaired by citizens and not special interests and added that code language was drafted based on public discussion at steering committee meetings.

"I have to admit that it is very frustrating `to spend two and a half years on this to reach out for public comment and not receive it until we get to this point in the decision making process," Tunnicliff said.

Click here to view the council meeting in its entirety, and click here to learn more about project Re:Code.