Helena-area residents gathered in the Lewis and Clark County Commission chamber this week to voice their concerns regarding proposed zoning for the Helena Valley.
Discussion of county zoning has been ongoing in recent weeks but Tuesday's meeting was the first to include all of the county administration. Residents raised several concerns but a single issue that rose above all others centered on the size of lots currently proposed. The preliminary draft of the Helena Valley Zone District has acreage requirements that include a 160-acre agriculture conservation zone, a 20-acre rural mixed use zone, a 10-acre large lot zone and a 160-acre public land development reserve area.
Tyrel Suzor-Hoy, who announced his candidacy for the commission this year, was the first to voice his opinion regarding the acreage requirements.
"Blanket requirements are not beneficial, but land use requirements are," Suzor-Hoy said. "Without the option to sell small parcels of land, landowners' livelihoods are at stake."
This argument was repeated multiple times as a few dozen individuals voiced their concerns over this proposed zoning area. Few comments dissented against the idea of land use requirements, but there were some concerns regarding that as well. Specifically, regarding different kinds of agricultural use of the Helena Valley lands.
The land use requirements in the zoning proposal would prevent certain commercial and industrial uses of that land, such as a gravel pit proposed near homes in the Helena Valley off of McHugh Drive. The proposal has drawn opposition from a significant number of residents in the area.
According to Peter Italiano, the county's director of community development and planning, the acreage requirements were not something the county just pulled from a hat. The 10 and 20-acre limits were identified in the county's 2015 growth policy and 160 is the parcel limit under Montana law. Italiano specifically noted that these acreage limits are not mandated and therefore are not considered absolute.
Italiano also pointed out the zoning considerations come with the conversation as to whether or not it may be desirable to further reduce development intensity. This is largely regarding use of services such as roads and water, of which the valley can only maintain a limited number of individuals. Possible infrastructure deficiencies and adverse impacts are a major concern for the county, he said.
Although the preliminary draft denotes acreages there is "still a lot of discussion to be had about the degree of flexibility," said Italiano. In other words, nothing about the preliminary draft is finalized.
"As we've said repeatedly, the process is in its preliminary draft stages and is by design intended to be iterative," he said. "Not to sound like a broken record, but these efforts are a work in progress and subject to change. Inclusive of density discussions."
Italiano said he appreciates people bringing concerns to the county's attention, because public comment will help shape whatever the final zoned area looks like. At the meeting, residents were more than happy to voice their opinions on the proposed zoning.
Mike Magee, representing the Helena Building Industry Association, said the HBIA is concerned that the lot sizes will increase the overall cost of living in the valley. Historically the valley has been one of the less expensive places to live in Helena.
"Only the top 10% to 15% will be able to afford these 10 and 20-acre lots," he said.
According to Magee, this could cut out a significant portion of more affordable housing options in the Helena area. He said that other than the top income levels, those wanting to buy a home in the community will be told "Sorry, you're not wealthy enough."
Legislator Julie Dooling believes the restrictions will overly burden neighboring Jefferson and Broadwater counties by making it too difficult for farmers and ranchers to subdivide property for development.
Dooling said she and her husband purchased their 160-acre ranch under the impression that they could one day subdivide 20 acre lots to other individuals. However, the preliminary draft of the zoning plan would place more extensive and expensive procedures that would hinder their future plans.
Those opposed to the large lot size offered counter suggestions such as smaller 1 to 2-acre minimums. However, a large part of why the county went with 10 and 20-acre lots is due to a desire to preserve the large lot lifestyle in the Helena Valley and the valley infrastructure.
Not everyone was opposed to the zoning. Lois Steinback said she supports the acreage requirements in order to preserve the rural lifestyle valley life offers. She also specifically cited the county's growth policy, which she referred to as "forward thinking" and "helps to balance competing interests."
Balancing competing interests is at the heart of what Italiano and the zoning board are trying to do at this time.
"A balance is needed between density and future projected growth, but part of that balance is often geographically specific," Italiano said. "With the assumption that a projected 10,000 (resident)population growth number is correct, the real issue is not simply how to accommodate that, but also where to best accommodate it."
According to Italiano, the Rural Growth Area develops in a low density scenario and the Urban Growth Area should develop in a complementary way at higher density levels. Italiano reiterated the importance of higher density areas being developed where infrastructure is most readily available.
Currently, the county is highly focused on the Rural Growth Area. Italiano said if zoning is ultimately brought to the valley, then the county would sit down with the City of Helena to discuss the urban area. As of now, the county is looking at its current growth policy, which reaches out to 2035.
Pending valley zoning, the next county program would look at tweaks to the subdivision regulations, which may need to be synced with the zoning, he said.
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