Zoning efforts in the Churchill-Amsterdam area sailed over the first hurdle at the county level Tuesday after the Gallatin County Planning Board unanimously gave the plan a thumbs-up.

The Amsterdam-Churchill Neighborhood Plan was hatched in 2007 and community members have been meeting regularly since then wrangling the details that will govern growth in the agricultural community, said Walt Sales, steering committee chairman.

"The biggest thing we are hearing is that people like to have that local control in their area instead being pushed by an outside area or a governing agency," he said.

The plan covers about 80 square miles and is one of the county's largest zoning districts to date, county planner Warren Vaughan said. The document splits the area between the "town core" -- a roughly one-mile box surrounding Churchill proper -- and the vast rural areas stretching from Norris Road on the south. The west boundary is a bench on Schutter Road. The plan abuts planning jurisdictions of both Manhattan and Belgrade. The vast area basically follows the borders of the Amsterdam Rural Fire District.

Even though the future zoning district was looked upon favorably some planning board members wondered if the area was too large, board president Kerry White said. Some of the southern areas along Norris Road have more of the "feel" of Four Corners and not Churchill.

"It extends all the way down to Four Corners and it doesn't feel like a neighborhood," he said. "I thought maybe it should be pushed back a couple of miles. There's 650 landowners, 51,000 acres, 80-some square miles -- it's a big area. But that's up to the landowners and the large landowners seem to be driving this because they want to stay ranching and farming."

That is generally the idea, Sales said. The plan has a "Right to Farm" clause that protects agriculturists from encroachments like growth. The clause exempts all agricultural uses from regulation and basically spells out that ag can be smelly, noisy and can sometimes go late into the night.

The only use the document bans is bars, casinos and sexually orientated businesses, Vaughan said. In a nutshell, anything else is a go, but people may have to go through the conditional use permitting process for commercial endeavors that cause high traffic or intense activity like gravel pits.

As far as development goes, high-density housing activity is encouraged around Churchill, but rural landowners can carve out pieces of land, according to the document. The rural areas has a base density requirement of one house per 160 acres, but that base can be increased if lots are clustered. Also, landowners can transfer development rights to different parcels within the area.

"We're trying to keep what type of development we've had, that historic pattern, in place," Sales said.

The plan also spells out future transportation needs including roads and trails, according to the document.

One family in the southern portion of the area near Norris Road said they weren't familiar with the plan, but a meeting is in the works to discuss the details, both White and Sales said. Should they want, the family can opt out of the plan.

"We want anybody with concerns to call us," Sales said.

The issue goes before the Gallatin County Commission Dec. 8 and if approved, zoning regulations will be written to match the tenets of the plan. The document can be viewed on the county Web site at gallatin.mt.gov under the "What's New & Happening Now" link on the county planning department page or by calling 582-3130.