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Planning board hears strong opposition to Helena Valley zoning proposal

Posted at 11:45 PM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-17 01:45:06-04

HELENA — A local planning board heard extensive opposition Tuesday night to proposed new zoning rules for the Helena Valley.

Helena and Lewis and Clark County’s Consolidated City-County Planning Board held a public hearing on draft regulations for “county-initiated zoning.” About 60 people were on hand at the Helena Civic Center, and more took part through remote conferencing. Almost all of those taking part opposed the changes.

The proposed plan would create three zoning districts – one urban, one suburban and one rural – across much of southern Lewis and Clark County. It includes a variety of regulations, specifying things like allowable land uses, building heights and how far buildings have to be from property lines and bodies of water. One of the most notable – and most controversial – changes would be implementing a minimum lot size of 10 acres in the rural district, to limit density.

County leaders say the new regulations are aimed at managing growth, creating more predictability for residents and property owners, and making it easier to address issues like water availability, wastewater, roads, flooding and fire protection.

However, opponents said the proposed rules would put too many restrictions on landowners in the affected areas – particularly farmers and ranchers and those with large properties. They said the 10-acre limit would make it too difficult and expensive to develop housing in the Valley, and that it would threaten the property values that many owners are relying on.

Jerry Hamlin, the president and CEO of Hamlin Construction and Development, said he saw the zoning proposals as arbitrary and unfairly targeting some landowners. He argued that the county and state already have sufficient regulations to manage growth.

“County-initiated zoning is a massive overreach by the county government, with no real benefit to the landowner,” Hamlin said.

Dave Lewis, a Valley landowner and former state lawmaker, said the plan was too narrow, and appeared to be generally opposed to subdivision. He said properties can be divided in ways that don’t harm neighbors’ property values, and he wanted to make sure landowners retained flexibility to do that.

“They’re the property owner; if they have an alternative use for the investment that makes sense, they should have that right,” said Lewis. “They shouldn’t be just foreclosed from doing that.”

Several people who testified also raised questions about why the regulations should apply to areas outside the Valley itself – particularly around Rimini. They said the proposed changes would have a greater impact in those areas because of the size, shape and terrain of the properties.

“I would not be able to put any new structures anywhere on my properties; I cannot get far enough away from the setback requirement,” said Clint Pullman, who owns several parcels in the Rimini area.

Board members said they want to take time to consider the issues that were raised at Tuesday night’s meeting. They voted to further discuss the zoning proposals at a work session on June 25.

You can find links to the proposed zoning regulations and map on the county website.