Citizens should steer Helena Valley zoning
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Citizens should steer Helena Valley zoning

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County initiated zoning could potentially have a very positive effect on the residents of the Helena Valley. Unfortunately, the county is about 30 years too late with this initiative and has failed in the past to have the courage to implement its previous comprehensive plans and growth policies with reasonable zoning regulations. The county has left the definition of land use and development patterns to subdivision developers to determine the character of the Helena Valley.

We attended the public information meeting on zoning at the West Valley Fire Hall. The meeting grew heated and contentious, primarily regarding concerns that the county was interfering with private property rights. The county staff could have emphasized the benefits of predictability and protection of property values against the old arguments that property ownership can be better managed by individual owners exercising their property rights without government involvement. Instead, it was members of the audience who courageously faced the hostile members of the crowd to make these points in favor of zoning. The greatest investment most people make is purchasing or building their home. The chief benefit zoning offers is giving people predictability for what kind and quality of development will occur around them and to help protect the value of their investment. That crucial point wasn’t made during the presentation.

There have been previous cooperative efforts by citizens working with homebuilders, Realtors and planning advocates to develop practical, workable model zoning regulations. The county officials failed to do anything with these proposals.

Zoning regulations for the Helena Valley should not set minimums for rural agricultural areas of 160 acres. You cannot save agricultural land by mandates. Large minimum parcel sizes can’t assure that agricultural operations will be profitable. Farmers and ranchers need the flexibility to sell property when necessary to maintain the viability of their operations or for estate planning. This proposal has rightfully sparked strong and passionate opposition because the concept is unsupportable.

Over the years, there have been attempts by concerned property owners to establish reasonable citizen initiated zoning regulations for their neighborhoods that have been turned down by the county commissioners, even when the proposals were consistent with the growth policy and based on sound environmental considerations. The county hasn’t supported residents when they have tried to approach zoning on a neighborhood level. This has eroded the trust and confidence many landowners have that the county will be responsive to their needs and concerns.

Now with the unworkable proposal regarding agricultural minimums of 160 acres, the county has made what could be a critical mistake of antagonizing the large rural landowners and their supporters by the complete failure to understand their operational needs. Commissioner Good-Geise has made the laudable goal of enacting county zoning before her retirement at the end of her term. Perhaps this goal would have been workable for a top-down approach to the county proposal, as it has been mandated. But, with lines of opposition now drawn in the sand, such an aggressive time frame may no longer be achievable. We recommend that the county appoint a citizen’s committee representing a wide variety of interests to develop a zoning proposal that would reflect a citizen-developed plan to present to the public. Turning the originator of the proposal from the county staff to the citizens of the county could help deflect some of the negative reactions experienced to date.

Sincerely,

Connie and Dave Cole

Helena

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