Helena creates new planning commission as state land-use law moves forward

Helena Zoning Map
Posted at 6:28 PM, Oct 31, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-31 20:28:45-04

HELENA — The Montana Legislature tackled some big changes in local land-use planning laws this year, and cities around the state are continuing to prepare for implementing those changes.

At a meeting on Monday, the Helena City Commission took two big steps toward further implementation of Senate Bill 382 – adopting a new planning commission and a framework for public participation.

SB 382, sponsored by Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, was one of the major zoning and land-use bills passed during the 2023 legislative session. Also known as the Montana Land Use Planning Act, it created a completely updated land-use planning process for certain larger cities. Each of those cities will be responsible for creating a new plan and future land-use map – and they have to designate a planning commission to review and make recommendations on them.

Cities have until 2026 to finalize their new regulations.

“We've got roughly two and a half years left, and we're on target to meet that goal,” said Chris Brink, Helena’s community development director.

SB 382 allows cities to designate one of their existing boards as the planning commission, create a new commission or share a commission with other local governments. Brink said Helena leaders decided it made the most sense to start a new one.

At first, the commission will be focused on the new land-use plan and map. After Helena finalizes them, the city will drop out of the joint planning board they’ve shared with Lewis and Clark County, and the new commission will take over those responsibilities within city limits.

“It doesn't necessarily change the requirements that we follow – just a different board to manage what we need to do for the Montana Land Use Planning Act,” Brink said.

SB 382 applies automatically to cities with more than 5,000 people that are in counties with more than 70,000 people. That currently includes Helena, Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Missoula, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish, Belgrade and Laurel. Other local governments, including counties, can opt in to the new process.

Roger Baltz, chief administrative officer for Lewis and Clark County, said the county hasn’t moved to comply with SB 382, so after 2026, they’ll maintain the existing planning board to handle these responsibilities in unincorporated areas.

SB 382 also requires participating governments to adopt a plan to ensure public participation in land-use decisions. Brink said the process established through the law will be substantially different, and that Helena residents will see the biggest changes in how and when they give input.

“Public engagement needs to happen at the front end of our process,” he said. “Your opportunity to participate when it comes to project and development approval, that the citizens are accustomed to, will now be narrowly focused.”

Brink said the public can have the most impact during the initial creation of the plan and map, which will begin early next year. Once those are in place, he said their opportunities to participate will narrow through the ensuing zoning and subdivision regulation process.

Helena’s new planning commission is going to initially include three members, and Brink said leaders plan to start the process of seeking applications in the coming weeks.