In an effort to ease confusion about potential land-use changes northwest of Helena, the Lewis and Clark County Commission voted Thursday to separately consider proposals to implement a military affected area and zoning changes near Fort Harrison. 

Intended to support military operations at Fort Harrison, the proposed changes would establish a list of permitted and prohibited land uses and place restrictions on things like lot sizes and outdoor lighting on surrounding private land. The military affected area and zoning regulations were getting mixed up, commissioners said, and they can be considered with more clarity through the separate processes. 

With more than a half-dozen citizens commenting on the complex proposals, it took more than two hours to get through the public comments and commissioner responses Thursday. 

Attendees raised questions on topics including the height of poles allowed on private property, dust and fumes being allowed from the Fort, federal versus county rights, taxation, property devaluation, and whether the county was protecting the Fort. This was the fifth public hearing about the military affected area and zoning regulations since August.

The proposed changes were compared to the USSR at a previous public meeting at Birdseye Fire Department. Commissioner Susan Good Geise opened Thursday's hearing by noting that some people had found her style at Birdseye “harsh,” but that in such a large place with people trying to record and listen, it was unfair to allow sidebar conversations to continue.

Jerry Hamlin, a Helena developer, told commissioners that the new zoning and military affected area seemed “more of a top-down zoning rather than a people-up zoning,” and was worried about the cost to property values in the area.

That worry about devaluing properties brought up fears of regulatory taking, which is when government regulations are so severe that the utility of private property is lost, but deputy county attorney Charles Lane said takings only occur when the property is almost “entirely devalued.”

Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said to the gathering that “if property is devalued, there is a formula to determine new property taxes” that would reflect the loss.

Questions about whether the Fort was going to follow the same requirements as homeowners were met with Geise’s statement that it is “legally not allowed for us to regulate state for federal government.”

Geise also told the gathered public that while the Fort does not pay county taxes, it does make “payments in lieu of taxes” that amount to a “substantial amount of money.”

Col. James Hesterberg, the construction and facilities management officer for Fort Harrison, said that the military “appreciates being a part of the community.”

“This is part of the process,” Hesterberg said. “It’s a lot of work, with a lot of staff ... but it’s a good process.”