HELENA — After about a year, a Lewis and Clark County advisory panel has wrapped up its work, making recommendations to county commissioners on how to move forward with zoning plans for the Helena Valley.
The Zoning Advisory Panel held its final meeting over Zoom on Friday.
The county commission set up the panel at the end of 2020, as part of its broader action to establish three zoning districts across the Valley: one urban, one suburban and one rural. It included Valley residents, developers, realtors and other stakeholders.
The panel members were tasked with recommending regulations for the urban and suburban districts, and with seeing whether they could agree on an alternative to the proposed ten-acre minimum lot size in the rural district – the most heavily criticized provision of the zoning plan. County commissioners delayed the ten-acre limit from going into effect until June 2022, to give the panel time to look at other options.
On Friday, the panel voted 9 to 3 to advance several recommended changes to the rural zoning rules: keeping the ten-acre limit, but adding an exception allowing planned developments with more density, if developers show they have addressed concerns about water, fire protection and roads.
“I hope we can strike a balance for everyone involved, where people who own land can develop it in the way they want, and the people who buy that land for their home have enough water, have access to emergency services, have good roads,” said Lois Steinbeck, a zoning panel member. “I want it all.”
But a number of agricultural landowners, who said they’d be most affected by the ten-acre rule, still said they didn’t believe the panel had given enough consideration to their input.
“You guys want to have us stay out here and stay farming, get us in the room and ask what it’s going to take,” said Joe Dooling, a farmer and rancher. “But don’t force something from the top down, because we’re going to work either through legislation or through the court or through new county commissioners to get this reversed, and all this time will be a waste.”
As part of their recommendations, the panel called on the county to have a “robust public process” to discuss regulations, including getting more input from agricultural interests.
The panel needed a supermajority vote – eight votes out of 12 – to make any formal recommendations. They were able to advance a recommendation for urban district regulations, but only seven members were willing to endorse the proposed rules for the suburban district. Opponents said the possible regulations in that district varied too widely, and it wasn’t clear yet in which areas each level of regulation would be enforced.
County planner Greg McNally told MTN that staff will still share their proposals on the suburban district with the county commission, but make clear that the panel did not vote to recommend them.
McNally said county staff still has a lot of work to do on the proposed zoning rules. He said, before any of the recommendations are finalized, the county commission will ask the city-county planning board to consider them, the board will hold a hearing and make its recommendations and the commission will have another public hearing of its own.
You can find more information about the Zoning Advisory Panel here.