County moving to create regulatory districts

The Gallatin County Commission switched gears somewhat Tuesday.

Rther than creating one large zoning district to govern gravel operations, the county is looking at creating several smaller areas that overlay existing planning boundaries.

Participants in neighborhood planning processes became jumpy after county officials announced plans to form a single zoning district that would overlay a large portion of the valley, according to Walt Sales, steering committee president of the Amsterdam-Churchill neighborhood planning group. Under the proposal, the county would plug neighborhood plans in as chapters to the large gravel-zoning district.

The county sold the idea of neighborhood plans to communities as a grass roots, citizen-driven effort to determine the future outlook of various areas in the valley, according to county records. Sales and others in the process said the overlay proposal would strip autonomy from individual areas and subject each distinctive plan to any zoning changes that come down the pike.

"We want to be a stand-alone district," Sales said.

That concern, coupled with administrative and legal issues, created the new idea of forming four distinct zoned areas, county planner Tom Rogers said. The commission, sans Commissioner Steve White, discussed the issue earlier this month.

At that time, Commissioner Bill Murdock favored incorporating the entire county but Commissioner Joe Skinner wanted something smaller to target problem areas.

New and expanding gravel pits have been contentious issues since 2007 and are a product of changing land use in the valley. As the county fills up with people, uses like gravel pits have come under pressure from new homes cropping up in the area.

Three of the four areas are already in the process of adopting zoning districts that address gravel operations, Rogers said. The 4.5-mile planning jurisdiction surrounding Belgrade adopted a plan for county review this week. A plan for the Manhattan doughnut is also in the works. The Amsterdam-Churchill area is going through the process as well.

The Four Corners area is not included in the effort because residents there established a neighborhood plan that includes gravel-pit restrictions last year.

The fourth area, around Gallatin Gateway, could present some problems, Murdock said. 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.

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 scoop up land that was formerly excluded.

"As far as I'm concerned, the big battle today is whether or not to expand the Gateway area," Murdock said.

Skinner agreed and said conflict will always be in play as long as gravel and residents are packed in together. And the only way to iron out the mess is to draw up some type of zoning regulation.

"If there was another way besides zoning, we would do it, but there doesn't seem to be a legal way to do it," he said.

Gateway-area resident and gravel operator Dick Huttinga agreed that the extended southern boundary could become a problem largely because so many landowners bailed out of the plan last year.

"A lot of people wanted out of the plan for a thousand different reasons, and not all of it was gravel," he said.

And if a gravel zoning district is formed, the result could become a slippery slope to other zoning amendments addressing a host of uses, Huttinga said.

"I don't think it will stay a gravel issue," he said. "It's a back-door approach and it's underhanded."

The new boundaries weren't formally adopted Tuesday, and won't be until the proposed districts go through a formal 45-day public notice period, Rogers said. The proposal will be posted in high-traffic areas around the county starting Feb. 5. From there, the commission will consider a resolution of intent on March 23 and, if passed, a 30-day protest period will begin. The commission will hold a hearing sometime in late April to consider a final the plan.

The goal, county officials said, is to ensure a "seamless timeline" so a regulation will be in place to govern gravel pits when interim zoning regulations expire May 7.