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Montana Judge Halts Zoning Reforms, Stirring National Debate

Montana judge issues a preliminary injunction against zoning reform laws, citing potential harm to single-family neighborhoods. This decision marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing national debate over zoning laws and urban densification.

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Geeta Pillai
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Montana Judge Halts Zoning Reforms, Stirring National Debate

In a landmark decision, Montana Judge Mike Salvagni has issued a preliminary injunction against two laws designed to reform zoning by legalizing duplexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on residential lands. Citing potential irreversible damage to single-family neighborhoods and potential constitutional rights violations, the court's decision comes in response to a lawsuit from homeowners rallying under the banner of Montanans Against Irresponsible Densification (MAID).

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An Unprecedented Stand Against Zoning Reformation

MAID argued that the proposed zoning reforms unfairly targeted areas devoid of protective covenants and violated the Montana Constitution. The group highlighted concerns surrounding equal protection and public participation in government decision-making, calling for a fairer approach to zoning reform.

The Montana case is not an anomaly; similar zoning reform challenges have surfaced in Minnesota and Texas. A judge overturned Minneapolis' abolition of single-family-only zoning, and Austin's zoning reforms were struck down. However, both cases were invalidated on procedural grounds, unlike the substantive grounds cited in the Montana case.

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A Nationwide Trend of Zoning Reform Challenges

Meanwhile, in other parts of the United States, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Portland, Maine, have passed zoning reforms to permit multi-unit developments in areas previously zoned exclusively for single-family homes. At the close of 2023, Charlottesville implemented changes that include allowing at least three units almost everywhere in the city and up to eight units in some residential zones. Furthermore, the city introduced new inclusionary zoning standards, marking a significant shift in its zoning laws.

In a contrasting case, the Colorado Court of Appeals defended a Lakewood ordinance banning colleges from owning off-campus student housing. This decision was upheld despite challenges from the Colorado Christian University, which claimed discrimination.

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The Complex Landscape of Zoning Laws

Zoning codes, often seen as the building blocks of urban and suburban development, are increasingly under scrutiny across the United States. In New York City, for example, zoning codes have peculiar restrictions, like permitting entertainment venues to allow dancing in manufacturing districts but not in certain commercial districts. These inconsistencies highlight the intricacy and complexity of zoning laws and their impact on urban planning and development.

The Montana case signifies a turning point in the debate over zoning reform, shedding light on the balance between urban densification and the preservation of single-family neighborhoods. As the nation continues to grapple with this issue, the direction of future zoning laws remains to be seen.

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