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Commission approves changes to development code

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POLSON – The city commission approved two staff-recommended changes to the Polson Development Code and denied another during the last meeting.

A state-mandated change to subdivision regulations related to agricultural use was the first update.

They also passed a city-staff recommended addition to the development code that would allow development without increasing the number of lots that don’t conform to zoning.

The commission failed to approve a change to the code that would redefine permitted use and special use multi-family dwellings. According to a staff report, the city received proposals for multi-family housing developments but a conflict as to whether the project can be constructed is in question. The city has identified the projects to be larger than expected for their zoning status. 

According to the report, Polson has lenient regulations on permitted uses compared to other Montana cities. The suggested amendment would require developers to submit a special use permit for any development that would exceed four housing units on a property designated as medium density residential. The special use permit process requires a public hearing. 

Commissioner Stephen Turner said he was opposed to making changes to what qualifies as permitted use and what is defined as special use in the city’s zones when it comes to multi-family dwellings. “(The development code) is only three years old,” Turner said. “We need to see how things play out before we jump in and start picking that thing apart.”

Planning Board member Tim McGinnis voted against the proposed change at the meeting where the board approved the changes. He said he saw the change as a “run around” of the Polson Development Code that gave more power to city staff and the planning board and took power away from the citizens.

Commissioner Jan Howlett and Mayor Paul Briney spoke in favor of the proposed public hearings on changes to the code.  

“If someone’s going to put a fourplex near my property, don’t you think I should be informed?” asked Briney.

McGinnis questioned how residents would determine the impact new construction would have on their property.

Commissioner Bob Martin said residents should be aware of how their property is zoned before they purchase it. Briney said the code could be changed without notifying property owners without an amendment.

A community member pointed out that the cost of a special use permit does not always mitigate the costs associated with allowing a large multi-family development in an area that does not have the infrastructure to support that use. She said that if the city has to build infrastructure to support denser residency those costs are borne by the taxpayer. “It’s not like the cost goes away, it gets transferred,” she said.

Commissioner Brodie Moll, Howlett and Briney voted in favor of the change and all other commissioners present voted against it. The proposal failed.

The commission also approved an amendment to the procedure for hiring a city manager. The new procedure is meant to clarify previously contradictory policies on hiring a city manager. The procedure states that in the event of a vacancy, the city manager position will be posted to current city employees to apply for five days. If the commission does not select a city manager from any in-house applicants, the city will contract with a hiring firm to facilitate a broader search. Howlett said she was opposed to the change.

“The community voted for a city manager form of government, and when I read this all I see is the good old boys using the city manager form of government to run the city the good old boys’ way,” Howlett said. 

In the past, the city voted to shift from an elected mayor running the local government to having a commission-appointed city manager. Howlett said she thought the new policy was “written around one person.” 

Commissioners Turner and Martin have expressed interest in having the city hire current interim city manager Wade Nash as the permanent head of the city. Howlett raised concerns that an initial in-house hiring process could result in the appointment of an unqualified city manager. 

According to the policy, the only required qualification for a city manager is “merit.” Howlett was the only commission member present to vote against the policy change. The city will post a call for applicants to city employees.


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