Group may recommend single-issue zoning district in all unzoned areas

A county committee charged with finding solutions to end the spirited controversy over gravel pits in the Gallatin Valley is nearing the finish line, but Gallatin County commissioners said they have reservations about some of the proposed solutions, which could bring zoning to unzoned areas of the county.

Two members of the Gravel Pit Task Force, along with Belgrade associate planner Heidi Jensen, met Monday with commissioners to discuss the enforcement boundaries for gravel-pit regulation.

But the discussion quickly turned toward a likely task force recommendation due to come down within a few weeks.

After months of work, the task force is nearly ready to crank out a recommendation for the commission to mull over, chairman Don Seifert said.

While an official vote by task force members hasn't taken place, the committee is leaning toward recommending the adoption of a zoning district that would cover all unzoned areas of the county.

New gravel-pit rules also could be adopted by the roughly 20 existing zoning districts in the county.

The task force has 'tweaked' the county's interim zoning regulation governing gravel pits and wants to use that as a permanent regulation in all unzoned areas of the county, Seifert said.

Under the guidelines, gravel pits would be assessed and rated through a process created by planners and task force members, Seifert said. Conditions for mitigation would then be imposed based on the results of the assessment.

'If a pit is going in on the north end of Bridgers, it may not have a lot of impact, but if one goes in near downtown Gallatin Gateway, there's going to be some impacts,' he said.

While commissioners seemed optimistic about implementing some type of measure to address new and expanding gravel pits, they said setting up a zoning district may not be the best way, and could get hung up by public opposition.

'That may be fine, but what about the people in Willow Creek?' County Commissioner Joe Skinner said.

The fear, commissioners said, is that the public may construe the plan to be a 'back door' into zoning the county for other purposes, such as density.

But Seifert opposed the idea and said the regulation would stand by itself. The group met with County Attorney Marty Lambert, who explained single-issue zoning to the task force.

'This won't become the camel's nose under the tent flap,' he said.

The only way for the commission to impose the ruling is through a zoning ordinance, Chief Deputy County Attorney Chris Gray said.

'That's the only power they have,' he said, 'although their zoning authority is very broad.'

The commission set up the task force to come up with a long-term solution to a contentious issue that has filled government meetings with angry residents. The group is composed of three gravel industry representatives, three planning board representatives from the county, Belgrade and Manhattan, and three residents who live near gravel pits.

Since very little happened last legislative session regarding gravel pit reform, task force members said some type of rule needs to be in place to reduce the friction. Otherwise, the issue will once again fall into the lap of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

'Without this type of regulation, it all happens in Helena,' Seifert said. 'The county has said it wants a seat at the table, and this brings it to the table.'

The group should complete its work in the coming weeks and will presenting its proposal in several different forums around the county, task force members said.