It’s clear that some type of zoning is needed to protect landowners in the Helena Valley.
It’s also clear that the zoning plan proposed by Lewis and Clark County still needs some work.
Although the overwhelming majority of those who have publicly commented on the county’s current zoning plan are opposed to the proposal, the Lewis and Clark County Commission is expected to vote on the issue as early as Tuesday. Approving a zoning plan without buy-in from the affected landowners would be a recipe for disaster, and we urge the commissioners to pump the brakes and get this right before the final decision is made.
One of the biggest sticking points for opponents is a proposed 10-acre lot size minimum, which some landowners believe will decimate the value of their land by preventing them from subdividing their property for future development and drive up housing prices by limiting the supply. Lewis and Clark County Commission Chair Susan Good Geise said the urbanization and suburbanization of the Helena Valley will make it more difficult to address issues such as water, wastewater, fire protection, roads and flooding, and the minimum lot sizes will help keep growth at a predictable and manageable level.
However, every piece of land is different. And the county’s plan should do more to account for the individual characteristics of individual parcels of land instead of relying on this one-size-fits-all approach.
Geise argues that the many critics of the plan have had years to voice their concerns and should have spoken up earlier in the process. While that may be true, we don't believe pushing through an inadequate plan just to get it on the books serves the citizens well.
Geise also emphasized that she promised her constituents that she would proceed with county-initiated zoning (as opposed to citizen-initiated zoning), and she is leaving the county commission at the end of the year. While we certainly respect her personal convictions, we don’t believe she has to vote for an imperfect plan to keep her promise.
We recently met with representatives from many of the groups leading the opposition. While they made it clear that they cannot support the current plan, they do see the benefits of zoning in general.
Likewise, both candidates running to succeed Geise, Tom Rolfe and Mike Fasbender, also said they would support a different zoning plan.
Instead of voting on the proposal in its current form, the current commission should form a committee charged with developing a fair compromise by a firm deadline. The committee should include city and county officials, Helena Valley landowners, and representatives from the real estate, banking, agriculture, affordable housing and construction industries.
The county should devote staff and resources to the effort. Likewise, the critics need to work closely with the county on finding common ground.
This is too important to get wrong. We want to believe that people with good intentions can achieve the common good on behalf of all concerned in our community and Lewis and Clark County.
As the saying goes: If there is a will, there is a way.
This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board.
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