City council OK’s bigger garage apartments, allows vacation rentals

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The Columbia Falls City Council Monday night approved a zone change that would allow a homeowner to add a garage or basement apartment up to 800 square feet in size.

A homeowner could also apply for a conditional use permit to build an even larger dwelling, provided it fits other city zoning regulations, including setbacks and total lot development.

The council also approved expanded uses for the rental — vacation rentals would be allowed, provided the homeowner gets the necessary permits from the city.

Vacation rentals are an increasingly attractive way for homeowners to earn additional income from their properties.

The city-county planning board last month approved a similar zone change, but it was limited in scope to a 600 square foot apartment and the rental had to be a month or longer. The idea, city planner Eric Mulcahy said, was to provide more affordable housing in the city.

But council received one letter and also heard testimony from Brandon and Jessica Rice. The Rices live outside the city limits, but in the city’s planning jurisdiction. They said a vacation rental that could also be used for family members if need be would be a good option.

Councilman Mike Shepard noted that the city’s setback requirements would be a limiting factor in apartment development. Apartments also have to show they have enough off-street parking.

Council agreed and voted unanimously to tweak the zoning regulations. They also approved zoning regulations in suburban-agricultural districts that bring them in-line with county regulations.

In other news:

• The council approved a conditional use permit for the owners of the former Bandit Bar to expand the number of gaming machines from 12 to 20.

• City manager Susan Nicosia noted the city is eyeing upgrades to both its sewage treatment plant and water system. The city is considering adding another well, among other improvements. Those improvements could mean a rate increase. Water rates haven’t gone up in 12 years, she noted. Council will take a look at the options in the coming weeks before having a public hearing on possible rate increases.

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