City staff proposing code changes for garages, accessory structures

The city is considering code changes to allow for greater flexibility for detached garages and accessory structures.

The changes are being recommended by staff after reviewing the existing code and community feedback.

In 2019 and 2020, the city’s Board of Adjustment received two variance requests for garages that exceeded current code limitations.

The board had to deny the variances based on current code and a board member asked staff to review the existing code to determine if the code could be updated to increase the sizes for accessory structures on larger city lots.

Staff has also talked to residents who were interested in building large detached garages to store vehicles such as boats, RVs and campers that are being stored in yards or on city streets.

Craig Raymond, city planning director, said staff had begun work on this proposed code change before City Commissioners began their push to change the rules to limit RVs, campers, boats and the like from being stored on city streets. That proposed code change was presented to City Commissioners at their July 20 meeting.

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During their July 27 meeting, the city planning board voted unanimously to recommend that the commission approved the proposed code changes.

City staff compared the city’s code for garages and accessory structures to those of Billings, Bozeman, Kalispell and Missoula. Generally, Great Falls was on the lower end of the requirements, according to city staff, meaning it allowed for more square footage for garages and accessory structures, according to staff.

Staff also met with a focus group from the building community to gather input and they were supportive of the proposal to increase the square footage allowed on larger city lots.

The staff proposal includes the following changes:

  • Clarification of design standards table. Currently the code combines the standards for principal and accessory structures. Staff proposes to break out the standards for accessory structures (detached garages, carports, and sheds) to make them easier for code users to find, as well as to define standards that currently are not called out within the code.
  • Create flexibility. Staff proposes to increase the maximum height of accessory garages to 24 feet across residential zoning districts rather than requiring a lower height when the home on the lot is one-story. This will create more flexible storage space to accommodate larger vehicles.
  • Staff also proposes increasing the setbacks for accessory structures from two feet to five feet to balance out the larger height allowance.
  • Update language. The use of the term “accessory structures” is proposed to replace the term “garages” to categorize structures including, but not limited to, detached garages, sheds, and carports. Staff currently reviews permits for these structures if they are at least 200 square feet to ensure that the aggregate square footage in the code is not being exceeded. Since sheds, carports and other structures are already counted towards the allowed square footage for cumulative garage area, staff is clarifying the code to make sure these structures count towards the allowed square footage for each lot.
  • Increase maximum square footage allowances. This is the most important change to the code being driven by citizen input. Currently, the allowed cumulative square footage for attached garages, detached garages and other structures is as follows:

Staff is proposing to revise the current square footage table to increase allowable cumulative area as
shown in the table below:

Staff is recommending that the current code table be modified to create five tiers of lot sizes rather than four.

“are simply too many lots within the city’s code jurisdiction that are between 10,000 square feet and one acre to have only one square footage allowance for accessory structures,” according to the staff report.

Staff is also proposing a significant increase in cumulative area allowed for accessory structures on lots that are larger than one acre since these sized lots are “fairly rare” within the city “and are chosen by many residents who have a number of personal vehicles that need to be stored,” according to the staff report.

The proposed code changes next go to the City Commission for consideration.