County adopts four zoning districts to control open-cut mining

The Gallatin County Commission made a sweeping land-use decision Tuesday, adopting zoning regulations to govern gravel mining in four separate areas in the Gallatin Valley. The regulations affect thousands of acres.

As it stands, the ruling will require gravel operators to obtain a conditional-use permit to mitigate the adverse effects their operations could cause, like dust and noise, among others. The issue isn't final, though; land owners in the affected areas have an opportunity to protest the measure.

As the county fills up with people, land-use conflicts will continue to increase, County Commissioner Joe Skinner said. The gravel debate has stretched back to at least 2007, when residents complained about new and expanding pits in both the Gallatin Gateway and Churchill areas. County officials have long said the state offers little help to resolve the conflicts and the only way to quiet down the fervor is to install zoning.

"The state isn't going to fix this," Skinner said Thursday. "Unless we were going to (pretend) that there isn't a problem, the only way to fix this is through zoning."

Residents packed the Gallatin County Courthouse for public hearings on the four proposed districts Tuesday, and most of them turned out for the controversial "Southern Valley" district, which encompasses 35,000 acres in the Gallatin Gateway area.

The rub for landowners in the area was two fold, according to testimony at the hearing.

While Gateway is going through the neighborhood planning process, the original boundary shrank considerably last year after dozens of residents showed up at the eleventh hour to opt out of the plan, according to county records.

The shrinkage removed several gravel pits that would have otherwise been regulated under the Gateway plan, according to county records. As a result, the Gateway area is unique in that the borders of the proposed gravel district reach beyond the current neighborhood plan boundary and scooped up land that was formerly excluded.

"This is top-down zoning and it's driving a wedge in the Gallatin Gateway community," resident Walter Nixon said.

Another sticking point for zoning opponents was that the regulation could be "a slippery slope" for future amendments. The fear is that in the future, the county could add layer upon layer of regulation on top of rural landowners, according to testimony.

"We keep trying to defend our way of life," Kathy Storey-Holbeck said. "Bowing to newcomers for zoning (gravel pits) will open the door to restricting ag."

Gateway-area resident Tim Heibert used the county rural-living guideline, Code of the West, to argue against zoning. The document spells out the risks of living in the country, where dust, noise and limited services can affect residents.

"I'm sorry folks, but noise, dust and views are not principals to enact zoning," he said.

Zoning proponents said property rights work both ways and some type of regulation is necessary to protect property rights on the other side of the fence from gravel pits, according to testimony.

"We're trying to find a way to coexist and we are not trying to shut down gravel pits," Carol Lee-Rourke said. "We are trying to find a way to live together. Compromise is something nobody likes, but everyone can live with."

Early on in the gravel debate, the county drafted a Good Neighbor Policy which offered a page of duties and responsibilities for mining operators, Gateway resident Dick Schockley said. But without zoning and its accompanying enforcement, residents would have no recourse should problems arise.

"If those rules are all agreed upon, then some would follow some rules some would follow no rules, but no one would follow all rules," he said. "Nobody wants rules, but everyone needs them."

The vote went down 2-1, with Commissioner Steve White casting the lone no vote. White questioned issues ranging from public notice to the legality of adopting single-issue zoning.

The core of White's argument against adopting zoning rests with implementing a top-down district rather than a grassroots effort rising from the citizens.

"When I ran for this office, I said if people want to implement zoning in their area then that's fine," he said. "What someone wants to do with their land is not my business. In this case, it's top-down zoning.

"There's a community out there very much in opposition of this," he added. "The community that is incensed is the ag community. They don't want more regulation on their land."

White also said the proposal could "open the door" to additional regulation, which could further affect land owners.

Commissioners Bill Murdock and Joe Skinner didn't disagree with that point, and acknowledged the gravel regulations could become a catalyst for more future rules.

"It's a slippery slope," Murdock said. "I don't want more zoning out of this, but there probably will be."

Skinner agreed. "I don't doubt it because it probably will (result in more regulations), but if we don't, it will ripple out into the future," he said.

Both Skinner and Murdock said the benefits of zoning for gravel mining outweigh the drawbacks.

Even though Tuesday's vote marked the first time the county has implemented a top-down zoning district, the conflict will always remain unless there is regulation, the commissioners said.

"We came up with this plan; it's a good idea," Murdock said. "And since then, we have demonstrated that we do not prohibit gravel pits."

The goal of the regulation, Skinner said, is to strike a balance between residents and their neighbors in the mining industry.

"It's more about mitigation than zoning," Skinner said. "It's the only review we have unfortunately, but zoning is the only way we can do this."

After the Gateway vote, the room largely cleared out, and residents said they will launch an aggressive effort to protest the measure.

The 30-day protest period for all four zoning districts will start after the first publication of notice, which is slated for Sunday in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, County Attorney Marty Lambert said Wednesday.

The commission adopted five changes to the regulation that will offer some concessions to the gravel industry and those changes are under review by Lambert's office.

"The plan is to make a Friday deadline to submit the notice to the paper for a Sunday publication," Lambert said in an e-mail. "If so, the 30 days would start on Monday, March 29, and end April 27."

The move has the Montana Contractor's Association worried that zoning will be adopted by other high-growth areas in the state, representatives said.

"There are a lot of counties watching this," the association's Mike Moehn said. "There are seven growth counties and if it prevails, they will be looking at this. To continue to kill business in this state is wrong. We aren't the bad guys here, we can do this right, but don't handcuff us."

In addition to Gallatin Gateway, the commission also adopted gravel regulations for the Manhattan and Belgrade planning jurisdictions and the Amsterdam-Churchill neighborhood planning area.

The push to implement zoning regulations rests with a looming May 7 deadline that will wipe away interim zoning regulations adopted two years ago.

Both Manhattan and Amsterdam-Churchill are writing zoning regulations to govern land use. Representatives from both areas said rather than rush to finish a document before the May deadline, the groups opted to adopt the gravel regulations first.

The Belgrade zoning regulation was different in that the document is a complete zoning ordinance outlining uses in the entire 4.5-mile doughnut circling the city. The Belgrade City-County Planning Board has been working on the document for two years.

Basically, the plan calls for commercial, mixed-use and high-density residential areas immediately surrounding the city. From there, the requirements open up to allow for more open space and agricultural uses.

The northern edge of the doughnut mirrors many of the attributes of the East Gallatin Zoning District, while the southern boundary calls for commercial, mixed-use and residential districts, according to the document. Jackrabbit Lane, South Alaska Road, Cameron Bridge Road and Valley Center Road east of Jackrabbit Lane are being proposed as commercial and mixed-use zones to capitalize on the future Interstate 90 interchange east of the city, with the bulk of the remaining land dedicated to suburban development.

The western edge of the boundary is slated for rural, low-density development that mirrors planning efforts currently underway in the Churchill-Amsterdam neighborhood plan, Belgrade City Planner Jason Karp said. The eastern edge of the jurisdiction is mostly eaten up by the East Gallatin Zoning District and bordered by rural suburban land. The remaining area is designated commercial and mixed-use along the Frontage Road.

Several people spoke out against the Belgrade measure, mirroring Gallatin Gateway residents' concerns. Lack of notice and additional regulations topped the list of gripes.

"We're finding out at the last minute," Amsterdam Road resident Peter Rothing said as he presented a petition containing 30 signatures against the measure. "This isn't just open-cut (mining) regulations; our property rights are at stake."

Skinner said unlike other districts, the Belgrade plan has been in place for a while and state law allows municipalities to draft land-use regulations in their jurisdictions.

"Normally I would like to spend more time on these issues, but I don't feel that way with Belgrade," he said.