Taxes, zoning measures could help guide growth

Johnathan Hettinger -
Thursday, December 27, 2018
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Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

On a warm August evening in Emigrant, more than 50 people packed into the Emigrant Hall for a Park County Planning Board meeting. Sitting on folding chairs in the yellow-tinted room with music from the Old Saloon in the background, they kept talking about the night sky.

Carol Reed remembered when you could count the number of ranches and yard lights. Robert Smith remembered when you could see the stars. Linda Ulrich worried about losing the ability to see the Milky Way.

Now, the lights from the houses across Paradise Valley made it so you’d be hardpressed to find a lightless place.

The residents talked about its past and its future and were all saying the same thing: Paradise Valley is a special place that is increasingly threatened by development; it needs to be preserved but who is going to do that?

The answer was where people disagreed.

‘More active role’ in land use

This year, Park County embarked on an ambitious yet contentious project: Preserving Paradise Valley for generations to come.

It was identified as an issue by the public during public meetings held for the county’s growth policy update and incorporated into goal 16: taking a more active role in land use management.

The county was starting with the low-hanging fruit: a billboard ordinance, followed by a decay ordinance to help combat the most severe issues of blight throughout the county.

The meeting in Emigrant drew more than 50 people but was cordial. A September meeting in Livingston was less so.

Ranchers took personal offense, saying they had protected the valley forever and that’s why it is as intact as it is now; the government shouldn’t tell them what to do with their land.

“When you start talking about zoning, we’re talking about people who are coming here from California and other places who want to save it from becoming what they left and have it be what we have been and what we already are,” said rancher Justin O’Hair at the August meeting in Emigrant.

At the September meeting, his father, Jerry, sarcastically apologized for taking care of his land enough that it’s one of the most preserved places in the Lower 48.

But Robert Smith, an Emigrant resident, asked where ranchers were when Sage Lodge was built and opened this summer, marking the view of Emigrant Peak from the town of Emigrant with two massive buildings.

“Without zoning, money is gonna do that,” Smith said. “We need to plan for it, or it’s just gonna happen, like the place across the valley. I don’t want a ski slope on Emigrant Peak, but enough money will buy it.”

Growth already coming

More than 750 addresses have been created across Park County over the past decade, largely in Paradise Valley. The county has no say over what can or cannot be built, as long as its septic tank can handle it.

With private land, people can do what they want with it. A gravel pit, a ski slope, a fast-food restaurant, a 10,000 sq. foot mansion can be built. Whoever owns the land will determine what it becomes and the county is seeing increased outside investment, said Mike Inman, Park County Planning Director.

Bozeman is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, almost doubling in population over the past 15 years, according to U.S. Census Data. Some of that growth is likely to spread to Livingston, Inman said. But at a recent mountain and resort town planners conference, an increasing population wasn’t the main concern.

Instead, it was what has happened to other towns, where wealthy people move in and shape it how they see fit.

“Livingston isn’t necessarily going to become Bozeman,” Inman said. “We may not become a city of endless sprawl, but instead growing in ways we don’t see, such as increasing housing costs and a changing community.”

He said many of the mountain towns like Veil, Aspen, Canwar, Banff and places like that didn’t expect the growth and are now trying to deal with it after the fact.

Already, billionaire Arthur Blank has expressed a desire to land bigger jets at Mission Field. Even though Park County has changed in the past decade, it’s still very little compared to what it could become, Inman said.

“Montana doesn’t know what it means to grow,” Inman said. “Not in the way these communities did.”

Citizens: Growth a concern

While the county is still in the process of approving zoning for billboards, the county commission has entered the final steps with unanimous approval. A decay ordinance is going to come next. These are issues the public identified as needing to be addressed in the growth policy, and now the county is doing that.

But after that? It’s up to the citizens.

A Park County Community Foundation project currently underway to help prioritize the community’s concerns found that the no. 1 issue people are worried about is growth.

The county and city have a joint planning subcommittee that would address how the city is going to expand into the county.

One of the main issues facing Park County is an increasing demand for emergency services and infrastructure. The Sheriff’s Office had a record number of calls for service this year. Park County Rural Fire District No. 1 is also facing resource constraints. Both the Livingston City Commission and Park County Commission went out for levies to provide more funding for ambulance services and other emergency services that failed in June.

Despite increasing property values, property taxes are only increasing by half the rate of inflation, leading to shortfalls in city and county coffers. The only way for new municipal revenue is new taxes or new properties.

Both commissions have supported the local gateway option tax, which would allow the city and county to be able to assess a sales tax on certain items at different points throughout the year to help take advantage of tourists who visit town.

A local gateway option tax has to pass at the state level, then local communities would have to pass a specific tax via a referendum.

Tourists should pay their share

At a meeting at West Creek Ranch earlier this fall, the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group discussed the growth, and what happens next.

Jeff Reed, who grew up in Paradise Valley, left for a career and then came back and now runs Reedfly Farm, said the valley has changed and systems need to adapt to those changes. He is now working with the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group to ensure that the area is preserved.

“There weren’t one million people driving through Paradise Valley every summer, and that traffic generates business,” Reed said. “The same thing that happened in San Francisco because of the tech boom will happen here because of the tourism boom and because wealthy people are moving here.”

Reed said there is a need for more revenue to help preserve the valley, and rather than putting the entire burden on property owners, a tax on tourists should be considered, whether that’s a sales tax, a local option tax, changing the bed tax or some other solution.

“We’re trying to figure out — in the tourism industry — what our responsibility and role is,” Reed said. “The seasonality of tourism puts a big drain on county emergency and public services. We’re the ones benefiting from tourism, we have some sense of responsibility to help local citizens solve that particular problem.”

Reed said he views a sales tax more as an operating expense to help solve two particular problems: How do we protect the product like wilderness, wide open spaces and clean water? And how to address property taxes that drive up housing costs for workers in the tourism industry?

“If we don’t pay attention to products, we’ll go out of business eventually. Customers will go away. The service industry has to be able to afford to work here,” Reed said. “Those are some of the things we’re trying to work on.”

“We’re at a pivot point in this state, we either get our s___ together with property tax or we don’t,” Reed said. “Let’s get the smart people in the room, like any good business would do, and start working on it. Let’s quit being petty Montanans whining about another tax. I don’t want an increase in taxes, I want to be smarter about how we tax.”

‘It only makes sense to plan for it’

Dan Vermillion, owner of Sweetwater Travel and chairman of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, has noticed a trend.

When someone fishes the Yellowstone River for the first time these days, they’re in awe of how pristine the landscape is, how many fish there are, how few houses. But in the busy season, it’s getting to the point where old timers won’t fish because they don’t like the crowds, Vermillion said.

Vermillion said that the Yellowstone River is much busier than it used to be, new houses are being built in areas that have long been winter range for deer, elk and antelope and water consumption is a question with more people.

Vermillion said he expects that both tourism growth and population growth are going to continue.

“Look around the United States and around the world, then look at what Montana has to offer people. It’s going be a long-term change, as the climate changes around the world and country,” he said. “People are going to start moving here for reasons other than they want to hunt and fish, because we’ve got cheaper land, and you can still buy a house, even though it’s what seems like a high price for Montanans. We have to allow for economic growth, and protect the resources that make this a place where we all want to live.”

Vermillion said efforts like Reed’s are necessary to protect the landscape.

“As a community that sees growth is coming, it only makes sense to plan for it,” he said. “If we want to be in charge of that outcome, it’s important to be involved.”

Inman said his office can only implement what the community desires. So far, that effort has been billboard zoning and a decay ordinance, but it’s up to the community to decide whether they want to plan.

“People that are coming will determine what we look like in the future, not the people who live here, if we don’t plan,” Inman said.