HELENA — The Lewis and Clark County Commission voted Tuesday to create a new zoning district in the Helena Valley, in response to a request from some residents in the area.
The new district, called Special Zone District No. 51, covers about 389 acres. It includes properties south of Forestvale Road and east of Green Meadow Drive. More than 60% of the landowners in the area signed a petition calling on commissioners to create a zoning district there.
After the commission voted to move forward in November, they opened a 30-day protest period. Six landowners, who control about 20% of the land within the proposed district, filed official protests during that time. If the owners of 50% of the property had protested, it would have legally blocked the district’s creation.
This action does not immediately create zoning for the area. It is the first step in a longer process. County leaders say they will now start work on creating a development plan for the district and on putting together zoning regulations to fit that plan.
Supporters of the new district say the area has long had a residential character, and they want zoning to ensure “compatible uses.” During Tuesday’s meeting, many residents raised concerns about a proposal to build a gravel pit in the area.
Kim Smith, the owner of Valley Sand and Gravel, filed a permit application last year with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, seeking to mine sand and gravel from a 61-acre site within the proposed district. DEQ is currently processing the application.
Supporters of the new zoning district said the proposed gravel pit is mostly surrounded by homes. They said they are concerned about possible impacts on neighboring wells, as well as on local property values.
“There’s a concern among not just a few homeowners, but many of us, that we want a safe place to raise our kids and grandkids, and not have our property devalued,” said Kenneth Higgins.
“Being able to establish this zoning in there gives us the ability to move forward with the lifestyle that we had hoped for,” said Lyla Lindskog.
MTN spoke with Kim Smith Tuesday. He declined to comment.
Commissioners voted unanimously to create the new zoning district, but they warned residents that this process does not mean the gravel pit will not go forward.
When there is no zoning in an area, Lewis and Clark County leaders said DEQ can make its decision on whether to grant a permit for a gravel pit without the county playing a role. Lindsay Morgan, a county planner, said it is not clear what will happen if the county implements zoning after a permit application has been filed.
Commissioner Susan Good Geise voted for the zoning district Tuesday, after having voted against it in November. She said she was concerned that the residents who asked for the district would feel their efforts had been for nothing if the gravel pit project goes forward.
“I don’t want you to think that your time was wasted, that your government did not hear you, and I don’t want anybody to lose faith in the public process,” she said.
The county is also getting ready to begin working on a new zoning plan for the entire Helena Valley. That “Part 2” zoning process will be moving forward later this year.
County leaders held two public meetings last month to get input on proposed zoning. Planner Greg McNally said they have scheduled two more meetings this month: one on Jan. 23 at the West Valley Volunteer Fire Department station on Forestvale Road, and one on Jan. 28 at the Big Sky Fellowship church off Montana Avenue past Lincoln Road.
You can find more information about zoning in Lewis and Clark County at the county’s website.