Emergency zoning discussion nixed in Park County
Enterprise photo by Justin Post
The Yellowstone river winds through Paradise Valley just south of Deep Creek.
Emergency zoning will no longer be discussed during this month’s Park County Planning and Development Board meeting.
The Planning Board, which serves in an advisory capacity to the Park County Commission, was scheduled to hear from Bozeman community planning consultant Jennifer Madgic during its June 18 meeting.
Madgic’s appearance before the board, however, has been withdrawn, said Planning Board Chairman John Heidke.
When contacted by phone Wednesday, Madgic said it’s important to have discussions about these matters in an open, public forum that supports community input. But during the ongoing new coronavirus pandemic, she said it’s difficult to organize robust public meetings.
That’s why, Madgic said, her planned appearance before the Planning Board was taken off the agenda.
Yet she said there’s a need to continue a community discussion about growth in Park County.
“I think people are already having those discussions,” Madgic said. “I think it’s evident that the Planning Board wants to have those discussions.”
Park County commissioners on Tuesday said the various discussions about possible future zoning should be delayed for the time being until the public is able to gather to hear more information and discuss the matter.
Heidke said the Planning Board takes the commission’s direction seriously and he agreed that the public should be given ample opportunity to participate in discussions related to future zoning decisions.
“We understand and we agree that having public, vast public discussion on this is exactly the way to go, so any things that mitigate against that are a concern to all of us,” Heidke said on Wednesday.
The Planning Board was scheduled to hear from Madgic about options for using interim zoning, also known as emergency zoning, as a tool as local officials weigh a draft countywide Conflict Mitigation Zoning District and a proposed Park County Community Decay and Litter Ordinance. The county in early 2019 adopted the U.S. Highway 89 South/East River Road/Old Yellowstone Trail Zoning District and Regulations, also known as billboard zoning.
Some have questioned whether emergency zoning is needed as the county wrestles with how to enforce existing regulations, such as billboard zoning, as well as future regulations that are developed by the Planning Board and subsequently adopted by commissioners.
“I think there are concerns that not enough is being done and that if the (Planning Board) is going to work on additional regulations, they want to see that these mechanisms are in place before they do the work,” Park County Planning Director Mike Inman told commissioners Tuesday.
Inman is working with department leaders and Chief Deputy Park County Attorney Shannan Piccolo on the issue of enforcement and developing a more formal process.
There were discussions about hiring a code enforcement officer in Park County and possibly a contract attorney working through the County Attorney’s Office to pursue criminal prosecution against those who are found in violation of billboard zoning and other future and current regulations.
But existing staff in the two-person planning department and the County Attorney’s Office believe they can handle the workload, at least for now, when enforcement ramps up, officials said.
Inman noted that planning staff has completed an inventory of billboards and has asked one owner to remove a sign, which he said is located in the Montana Department of Transportation’s right of way.
“That will be one success story which will have taken about seven months total to get that one sign out of there,” he said. “We continue to move forward; it’s a really slow process and a lot of it requires the willingness of the landowner to do what’s necessary.”
The county’s current informal system of enforcement and responding only after receiving a written complaint is cumbersome, Inman said.
“It’s just kind of crazy how difficult it is under our current system to be effective in enforcement,” he told commissioners.
Commission Chairman Steve Caldwell agreed that Park County needs to take a good look at how regulations are enforced.
“Without any effective enforcement, it really doesn’t make sense to have a regulation at all,” Caldwell said. “All it does is it just encourages people to ignore the ordinances we do have in place.”
Caldwell and fellow Commissioner Clint Tinsley agreed, however, that they do not approve of adopting emergency regulations while the topic of zoning, in all its forms, is weighed in Park County.
“I don’t see the emergency of zoning right at this point in Park County; we still have tons of lots available in subdivisions — I think 5,000 lots may be available in Park County,” Tinsley said.
Tinsley applauded the Planning Board for its work, but maintained that the board should withhold discussions about issues related to zoning until the public has more opportunity to attend those meetings and participate in the process.
“My hat’s off to the Planning Board for trying so hard, but I just think there’s really no way we can really justify having a meeting on something this serious in Park County until we can get out through the county and have our meetings like we normally do,” he said. “I just think we’re going to be pushing people off in a bad direction, and we’re not going to get the input that we expect to get.”
Tinsley said he sees a need for zoning in Park County, but not emergency zoning.
Caldwell offered similar comments.
“I think, from my perspective, the idea of interim zoning is kind of a non-starter,” Caldwell said. “I don’t know that that makes any sense at all because there is no emergency facing us, so I think that’s off the table from my perspective.”