Park County voters should decide on zoning

Wednesday, November 27, 2019


Balancing the rights of the individual within the context of a broader community is extremely difficult. From what I gathered in reading a couple recent articles in the Enterprise, it appears there’s an established need for the County to pursue zoning. There was no mention of any empirical data supporting this need but rather anecdotal references relayed by several folks. Hopefully there’s some substance somewhere because anecdotal input doesn’t really amount to anything more than some sort of informal back of the envelope tally. 

Maybe there is a groundswell afoot, but before we stipulate to the need, it sure would be nice to see some data detailing whether the groundswell is 20, 200 or 2000 folks. There seems to be no shortage of opinions on why we need to implement zoning, but it would sure be nice to see any data to back it up. If we rely on personal opinions and unsubstantiated notions as the basis for generating zoning regulations, we may as well just put some ideas up on the wall and throw darts at it. Even Livingston is part of the data-driven world we now live in. There is no excuse for not collecting and analyzing some data before jumping right to a solution. Might it be hard to collect some data and might it push the timeline out a bit? Sure, but the goal should be to do what’s right not what’s easy. Decision-making in the absence of data and analysis when formulating public policy is not really indicative of good government.

The Montana code authorizing County zoning is not open-ended. Among other things, Montana Code requires any County zoning be made in accordance with the County’s Growth Policy. Park County’s Growth Policy does include a section, under the heading of “implementation tools,” providing an academic discussion of zoning. Mention of zoning is virtually nonexistent in the substantive portions of the document discussing specific goals, objectives and the actions necessary to achieve the stated objectives. One could easily read the Growth Policy and come away with the impression that the County did not intend to rely on zoning as a tool to achieve the policy’s desired outcomes. 

What has changed that we are so quick to jettison the actions identified to address goal 16 (land use and development) issues? Given zoning is not mentioned as an approach to reach goal 16 objectives, how does zoning move so far up in line? If we’re not going to follow the Growth Policy, perhaps it should be invalidated. 

One area the Growth Policy does cover in detail is property rights. Goal 15 includes explicit statements on the foundational importance of property rights and an expression of the County’s commitment to affirming property rights. As stated in the Nov. 11 issue of The Enterprise, Commissioner Caldwell’s notion that there’s been shift of emphasis from property rights to property values is quite disconcerting. Government’s primary role is to protect our rights, not compromise them in some misguided effort to influence property values.

Recognizing the document is a first draft, the language in the Conflict Mitigation Zoning District Regulations needs some significant tightening. For example, the wording under the heading of “Purpose” in paragraph two is chock full of subjective language that can be interpreted 100 different ways by 100 different people. The more subjective a rule or regulation is worded, the more likely things go off the rails due to unintended consequences. The subjectivity of the review criteria laid out in paragraph 11 is particularly scary. Woe be the landowner with a land use dispute who is subjected to the criteria as written. 

There are no standards set forth in the draft language to inform folks what’s expected in order to meet a given set of criteria. As just one example, subpara 11, C, 4; “Will the proposed land use create dust?” Ever drive on any gravel road in the County? Every vehicle creates a small dust storm. How much dust creation constitutes too much? What is the standard and who establishes the standard? How is it measured? When is it measured? How is ongoing compliance monitored? How can one be expected to hit a compliance target absent a formal standard? Each of the review criteria in paragraph 11 carries with it a similar series of questions. Criteria like this may seem just fine as long as they’re being applied to the other guy, but apply them to yourself and your perspective will likely shift. Guess when I build my dirt farm I’ll make sure my dust creation review is done on a rainy day.

Whether you are for or against zoning, a decision of this magnitude should be in the hands of all eligible voters in Park County, not a Board of three individuals. This is not particular to our current slate of Commissioners, but regardless of who occupies the seats. If the Commission is as committed to getting as much input from County residents on the topic as possible, the purest method for gaining the broadest consensus for any zoning resolution is to put it to a popular vote. 

There is nothing in the Montana Code that stipulates County zoning regulations can only be adopted via a Commission vote. The public participation process typically followed in the County to inform Commission decisions is not adequate for a topic as significant and potentially contentious as countywide zoning. There is really no valid argument against a countywide vote. With primaries in July and a general election in November, timing would line up well for a countywide vote next year. 

We need only look back on the adoption of signage regulation zone in Paradise Valley to raise questions about how public input is factored into the Commission’s decision process. A review of adopted signage resolution on file with the Clerk and Recorder documents the public comment collected during the public process. The record shows there were/are more comments opposed to adoption of the resolution than in favor. Clearly, some comments were discounted in favor of others as the Commission moved down the path to approval. 

A popular vote would eliminate any notion of Commission bias as every eligible voter would have the opportunity to cast their own yea or nay ballot. The public process can be followed to formulate the resolution, but the decision to adopt should be based on a popular vote by eligible County residents.

Jeff Wagner



Special Sections