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Polson Commission considers zoning amendment, sewer ordinance

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | March 16, 2023 12:00 AM

Polson City Commission held back-to-back meetings last Monday, March 6. The first, described as a workshop, gave city staff the green light to move forward with the process of amending the Polson Development Code to allow two-family dwellings in low density residential areas.

During the regular commission meeting that followed, commissioners approved the first reading of an ordinance that would create a municipal code to address non-routine sewer maintenance – and help identify those homes and businesses that persistently contribute to the problem.

Amending the zoning code

The notion of allowing duplexes in low density residential areas was first broached in January as a means of expanding housing options. While the proposal originally generated some pushback from community members, last Monday’s workshop was a quiet affair.

City manager Ed Meece pointed out that the Legislature is considering multiple bills this session that would loosen zoning regulations, including proposals to allow two-family units in all residential zones, and larger multi-family units in cities with populations over 50,000. While these legislative mandates typically are aimed at cities with larger populations than Polson, Meece suggested taking proactive steps now could serve the city down the road.

Commissioner Carolyn Pardini asked if new state laws would supersede local zoning jurisdiction.

“It definitely does,” replied Meece.

He added that while the commissioners could opt to wait and see what the Legislature ultimately approves before amending the local zoning regulation, by moving forward now, the city can show that it’s taking steps to tackle the housing issue.

“It’s in our interests to create our own zoning code and make changes we think are most appropriate for our community,” he said. “Every time a city can stand up and say this is what we’re doing it just tells the story that cities aren’t just sitting around – we are actively pursuing” ways to make housing more affordable and available.

Commissioner Jake Holle said his constituents have expressed “anxieties around duplexes becoming short-term rentals.”

Meece, noting that Sen. Greg Hertz has proposed legislation (SB 268) that would define short-term rentals as “residential” use that could not be regulated by local governments, suggested the commission deal with that issue separately.

The barrage of zoning deregulation “is all under the umbrella of affordable housing,” Meece added. “I’m not sure how short-term rental works as affordable housing because everything I’ve seen says it does the opposite. It destabilizes your market in the sense of long-term renters being unable to access that same inventory.”

With no changes to the proposed amendment emerging from the workshop, Meece said the proposal will now go to the city-county planning board, which will also hold a public meeting on the amendment. After a review by the planning board, it comes back to the city commission for two more readings, offering at least three more opportunities for public input before it becomes city law.

Meece compared this grassroots process to the way in which the Legislature passes bills that can affect every municipality across Montana after “at the most two legislative hearings.”

He described how, in committee hearings, “the first person gets five minutes, the next four or five get a minute and a half, and then it’s just ‘are you for or against,’ as opposed to here, where the public gets five or six public opportunities to get involved in a draft zoning amendment.”

“That’s the beauty of why we do it the way we do it,” he added.

Identifying clogged sewer-line culprits

During its regular session, the commission unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that would create a municipal code addressing non-routine sewer maintenance.

According to city attorney Dave Michie, the ordinance would help the city tackle “problematic sewer service lines” that regularly get clogged with a variety of debris, including lard, grease, rags, wet wipes, diapers, and other non-biodegradable materials that can wind up in a main line and cause a blockage.

Michie explained that while the city regularly maintains its main sewer lines, the upkeep of service lines is the responsibility of property owners. The city, he added, is not equipped to maintain private sewer service lines.

When a blockage occurs in a main line, it can reduce flow or, worse yet, cause sewage to back up in other homes that share the same line.

Homes that are damaged by back flows often bring claims against the city, which in turn can increase the city’s insurance premiums, which jumped by $50,000 last year. Homeowners can wind up paying up to $30,000 for cleanup, and city workers devote more time for additional maintenance on those problematic lines.

Without an ordinance in place, “Insurance premiums rise, non-routine maintenance increases and the bad actor gets off scot free and leaves rest of the citizens of Polson liable for the cost,” Michie said.

The proposed ordinance would assess a minimum fee of $75 per hour for maintenance on the main line caused by a “problematic service line.” Owners or occupants of the offending property could also face fines, misdemeanor criminal penalties of up to $500 per violation, and have their property disconnected from service.

Michie notes that the ordinance would apply “to several problem properties while protecting people on that same line.”

“We’re not talking incidental accumulation,” he added. “We’re talking about purposeful – years of accumulation that’s now affecting our sewer system.”

“How does it help people who end up with ka-ka in their basement?” asked commissioner Holle. “This is one thing I’ve heard a lot about and know people who it’s happened to. Is this going to help them be able to get it fixed fast enough without any problems with the offending homeowner?”

Meece said he would discuss that issue with the city’s insurance adjustor and hoped to get something in writing before the next meeting.