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Land use study looks to avoid conflicts between Fort Harrison, civilian life

Rick Lamach, master planner with the Department of Military Affairs, said Fort Harrison's neighbors have concerns ranging from noise issues to vibration from helicopters. Officials are working on "neighbor friendly protocol," he said. 

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record file

Some landowners worry their property value will drop if the county enacts a set of proposed zoning changes intended to support military operations at Fort Harrison. 

The proposed changes would establish a minimum lot size of 10 acres for new parcels, except for approved cluster developments, in the affected area around Fort Harrison. They would also establish a list of permitted and prohibited land uses and place restrictions on the use of outdoor lighting, which can interfere with night vision equipment. 

A few landowners argued the county is bowing to the needs of the military at the cost of taxpayers. Others called the wording of the proposal vague and asked for clarification. Much of the questioning focused on landowners wanting to build on or renovate their property. 

County commissioners and staff took notes on the concerns and questions from speakers at the hearing and said they will research the matters prior to the next meeting on the topic in October. 

Officials say the much-discussed proposal is a matter of public safety, health and welfare.

A couple of residents in the impacted area asked the county commission at a public meeting Thursday morning how Fort Harrison intends to compensate them for the proposed limitations.

The zoning district would include about 32 square miles, or 20,722 acres around Fort Harrison. The new regulations were created to reduce conflicts with adjoining land uses.

The proposed military-affected area zoning, part of the county growth policy, has been supported by the Helena-Lewis and Clark Consolidated City-County Planning Board. After hearing presentations from county and military officials Thursday, the county commission did not make a decision on the proposal. The subject will be revisited at another meeting on Oct. 12. 

Officials have sent out 594 letters to those in the proposed zoning district and others in the immediate area. The impacted region includes Williams Street, Head Lane, Country Club Avenue, Austin Road and Birdseye Road. 

About 60 residents attended Thursday's meeting. So far, eight landowners have submitted letters as public comment. Officials urged others to email or send their statements on the subject to be part of the record. 

Sarah Bauer, who lives on Austin Road, told the commission the proposed district would encompass half of her property. This would create hardship and lower the value of her property, she said.

"We have been able to coexist with Fort Harrison for years, and we don't need the government to step in where a problem doesn't exist," Bauer added. 

Debra LaFountaine, a master planner with the Department of Military Affairs, said the proposal is intended to mitigate issues before they surface. 

"We're kind of a noisy, annoying neighbor to have," LaFountaine said. "We want very much to be a good neighbor to the surrounding property owners."

Tim Scheuer, a retired Montana National Guard solider who lives directly adjacent to Fort Harrison, told the commissioners he understands firsthand the needs of the military but said he can't support something he feels is one-sided. Scheuer agreed with Bauer, saying the regulations would create conflict, not quell it. 

Scheuer said the proposed changes would dictate what taxpayers can do with their own property. While he understands officials not wanting any new subdivisions in the area, he cannot support a proposal that will suppress landowners' rights, he said. 

Rick Lamach, master planner with the Department of Military Affairs, said the process of working on the proposal has brought up many concerns ranging from noise issues to vibration from helicopters. Officials are working on "neighbor friendly protocol," he said. 

"We can't make this a perfect fit," Lamach said, adding that they are exploring how to make training less noticeable to the surrounding landowners. 

Some military bases in the nation have had to close or change training due to encroaching development, he said. Locally, it is not a case of Fort Harrison wanting to expand operations but to ensure safety. The proposal is in the county's best interest, Lamach added. 

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