Bill Revising Laws for Accessory Dwelling Units Dies in Senate

Senate Bill 397 would have prohibited most zoning regulations and other restrictions on units; opponents argued decisions are better left up to local jurisdictions

By Maggie Dresser
Montana State Capitol. Beacon File Photo

A bill that would have prohibited most city and county zoning regulations and other restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as mother-in-law units, failed in the state Legislature.

After the Senate Local Government Committee tabled Senate Bill 397, an April 1 motion to move the legislation from committee to the Senate floor failed on a 29-21 vote. The bill would have allowed homeowners to add mother-in-law units with almost no restrictions. 

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, would have prevented local governments from adopting zoning regulations that prohibit ADUs on single-family parcels or enacting other restrictions such as parking limits, square-footage limits and additional building standards. The bill would have allowed local governments to enact a one-time application fee of up to $250, additional building permit fees and a building license.

Hertz said the current zoning regulations and restrictions in place for Montana cities prevent more housing inventory from being added to an already tight market.

“The demand for smaller housing exists,” Hertz said at the March 29 hearing. “The disconnect between housing supply is due in part to cities’ indirect discouragement of diverse and flexible housing options.”

ADUs also allow extended family members to reside on a single property while seniors can age in place, he said. 

Sam Sill, representing the Montana Association of Realtors, supported the bill because it would help homeowners afford mortgages and increase housing options.

“We view ADUs as one part of an important part of housing affordability and increasing housing choices,” Sill said.

Several people spoke in opposition of the bill, arguing it would attract more short-term rentals to cities, strain infrastructure and add density.

“There’s nothing in (the bill) that requires any of these new units to be affordable … It allows for unfettered building for things like guest houses and tiny homes on single-family lots,” said SK Rossi, a lobbyist representing the city of Bozeman.

Planning officials also argued the lack of regulations would negatively impact land use and cities, and that while ADUs are generally supported, local governments should be responsible for individual cities.

Andrew Hagemeier, a representative for the Montana Association of Planners, said while ADUs are beneficial for housing inventory, the state mandate would not address local public input, site analysis and impacts on land use.

“When you’re changing zoning codes, such as allowing ADUs, there’s robust local public input,” Hagemeier said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have these luxuries when changing the content of zoning codes at the state level … We do have concerns on how this bill will affect land use.”

Kalispell Senior Planner PJ Sorenson, who did not testify at the hearing, said planners typically agree that allowing ADUs would impact each local jurisdiction in different ways.

“Where there’s something in Kalispell or Whitefish or Bozeman, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to have the same rule applied to Glendive or Miles City,” Sorenson said in an interview. “Land use by nature is a local type of thing, so you have to take in local conditions of what the local community wants, and it’s hard to do that on a state level. Montana Association of Planners wasn’t opposed to ADUs in general, and in fact supports them in general, but having that one size fits all (doesn’t work).”

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