The great Montana parapet battle

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A report from Languge Log's Rocky Mountain desk, where folks out here now fight over words rather than cattle rustling.

The Planning and Zoning Board of the Missoula Montana city government is having one of those ding-dong, small-town lexical battles, this time over what constitutes a parapet. Montana Lil’s has purchased the defunct 4 B’s Restaurant at a busy (by Montana standards) intersection and wants to turn it into a casino (yes, we have lots of these out here and we probably don’t need any more, but that’s how it goes out here in the new Rocky Mountain west).

The new owners want to erect a big video sign on the old restaurant’s roof, which has four equal sized, triangular sections that come to a point at the center. Current signage rules allow for parapet signs but they prohibit any signs on roof tops. No problem, say the new owners. Their new sign will be placed on a parapet that they’ll construct as a small, box-like structure on top of the building’s existing pointed roof. Unfortunately for them, their proposed construction is way too far from the edge of the outer wall of the building, where parapets normally are located. City officials say this doesn’t fit anyone’s definition of a parapet. They have a point.

Castles have parapets, those sawtooth structures that line the tops of their outer walls and provide strategic slots where defenders can use their guns and arrows to shoot at invaders. Older wooden buildings in the American west sometimes also have parapets on top of their front walls, although these are intended to preserve that “old west” look and they serve no useful function.

Montana Lil’s owners’ first effort to get the parapet signage failed, so now they’re appealing on the grounds that they plan to construct a small mechanical room in a box on top of the pointed roof, which they're calling a “second story,” therby miraculously converting it into an "outer wall" where a parapet appears to be perfectly legal. Needless to say, city officials are skeptical about this and the battle of word definitions is raging.

There you have it. We don’t have shootouts at the OK Corral out here any more. There’s no need to cancel your vacation trips for hunting, fishing, skiing, or climbing the beautiful mountains though. Things are pretty tame. Our major battles are lexical these days.

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