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Western Montana Counties Start to Speak the “Z Word”

It wasn’t too long ago public officials in many Montana counties who wanted to get elected or re-elected didn’t use the “Z word.”

But people change, communities change and now what used to be taboo is a rallying cry being picked up by those same public officials, a few developers and citizens all around western Montana.

The “Z word” is zoning.

Growth in the region is spilling out from urban centers and into outlying, rural counties that haven’t planned for the mostly residential growth they’re seeing. This has left county leaders scrambling to find the time, money and energy to keep pace and develop actual growth strategies and regulations.

Missoula is the economic center of the region and most populous county in western Montana, at just more than 99,000 people. But, the fastest growing county is neighboring Ravalli County, which grew more than 44 percent from 1990 to 2000.

The growth in Ravalli County is residential. People want to live there and work in Missoula, said Karen Hughes, planner for Ravalli County.

“Ravalli County ends up with Missoula’s residential growth that, to some extent, feeds Missoula’s economic growth,” Hughes said.

In the past 18 months, three major subdivisions have been proposed in the county.

Aspen Springs, near Florence, is a 650-unit planned community, which will be equipped with stores, open space and parks. FlatIrons, near Hamilton, would be nearly the same size and concept. Legacy Ranch, near Stevensville, will be a 580-unit subdivision bordering Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

The only regulations currently in place in Ravalli County are subdivision regulations, which need to be updated to meet state law, sanitation regulations, and road construction laws, Hughes said. Roads have to be built to county standards and the sanitation regulations dictate where septic systems and wells can be placed.

Ravalli County, like Missoula County, has passed a growth policy, but that’s just a start. Growth policies are guides for growth, but they have absolutely no regulatory power – county officials cannot approve or deny a subdivision based on their growth policy. Regulations and zoning are the tools a county needs, but Montana law requires those be in compliance with a municipality’s growth policy. So, in theory, if a county doesn’t have a growth policy, then subdivision regulations and zoning are unenforceable, said Andrew Finch, president of the Montana Association of Planners.

So Ravalli County has a short headstart in handling growth. But Missoula isn’t just spilling over into Ravalli County.

In Granite County, the recently announced Ryan Creek subdivision would add more than 500 homes in the rural area east of Missoula.

Unlike Ravalli County, Granite County hasn’t passed a growth policy, but one has been developed.

Granite County voters will have an opportunity to vote on their growth policy in November, said Mike Kahoe, the county’s administrative assistant.

But even without a growth policy, the Ryan Creek subdivision will have to adhere to Granite County subdivision regulations, said County Commissioner Clifford Nelson.

Just the proposal of the subdivision will mean big changes for the small county, with a population of roughly 2,800.

“We’re not really ready for one that big because we’re going to have to come up with the money to hire a full-time planner,” Nelson said.

Granite County contracts its planning duties to Deerlodge County, he said. But they don’t have the time or manpower to handle a subdivision like this either, so Granite County is revising its subdivision regulations and processing fees to generate money to hire a planner.

Though Granite County is trying to catch up with the sudden possibility of substantial growth, two other counties bordering Missoula are ahead of the surge.

In October, Lake County passed a county-wide density map – essentially regulations stipulating how development can occur, said planner Sue Shannon.

Developing the regulations was a grueling task, Shannon said. The process took about two years and started with the county planning staff sitting around a table with maps of the county.

County planners drew circles around communities and began to look at what population densities were preferable. Then they went out on the ground and made sure their projections and ideas were right.

“We did that in-house for about six months,” she said.

Then they passed it off to some of the larger land-holding entities in the valley – the U.S. Forest Service, Tribal officials and Plum Creek Timber Company. The planning staff wanted to see if they were on the right track, Shannon said.

They made more changes and presented it to the public for comments.

The biggest fear from the public was that the zoning would stipulate land use, she said. So they addressed the concern in the language of the zoning.

“The regulations now specifically say that if there’s any attempt to add provision that would dictate specific land uses, that the regulation would become null and void,” Shannon said.

Some people were very concerned that the county was trying to destroy their livelihood, she said. But the commissioners and planning staff stuck with it, trying to address concerns and educate people.

“You had to be sure in your conviction that the county needs some sort of tool,” Shannon said.

By the time the public process was over, the document had been changed substantially.

“What the staff and the planning board started with was very different from what was adopted,” she said.

In the end the commissioners received very few objections and the county density map was approved, with the stipulation that it would be revisited after one year and then every five years after that.

The idea behind the map is to direct growth, Shannon said.

“The biggest thing is that it’s going to enable the county to grow in a cost-effective manner,” she said.

The first paragraph of the document reads:

“The purpose of the Lake County Density Map and Regulations is to lessen congestion in the streets; to secure from fire, panic, and other dangers; to promote public health and general welfare, to provide adequate light and air; to prevent the overcrowding of land; to avoid undue concentration of population; and to facilitate the adequate provision of transportation, water, sewerage, schools, parks and other public requirements.”

But among Missoula’s surrounding counties, the veteran of county-wide zoning is Powell County.

Powell County is one of Missoula’s eastern neighbors. They have had a comprehensive growth policy and zoning in place since 1996, said County Planner Ron Hanson.

The area around Ovando is the county’s most physically attractive area for development that borders Missoula County, Hanson said. But that area of the Powell County is zoned for 160-acre parcels, which makes it unattractive for developers.

“What we’re attempting to do is not stop growth by any means, but encouraging growth to occur around existing communities,” Hanson said.

Powell County is unique since much of the pressure from development comes from Helena to the north, Missoula County to the west and Butte to the southeast.

Its location was the impetus to establish some sort of zoning and growth policy early on, he said.

“We would be overrun if we didn’t have that,” Hanson said.

Missoula and Ravalli County do have some zoning, but it covers only a very small portion of the county.

It’s called citizen-initiated zoning, or Voluntary Zoning Districts, and it occurs when the majority of people living in an area get together and agree on how their neighborhood will be zoned. Once they figure it out, the county commissioners have to approve the plan and then it becomes law.

In Missoula County, 4.2 percent of unincorporated private land is zoned, according to Klette. That zoning is primarily citizen-initiated.

Ravalli County has 37 citizen-initiated zoning areas, but they also cover a very small percentage of private land, said Karen Hughes.

These citizen-initiated options are popular with the commissioners because they don’t get done unless the people want them done, she said.

And though the large developments are happening outside of Missoula County, it isn’t because of the county’s regulations, Klette said.

“Aspen Springs might be proposed south of our border right now, but there isn’t any reason why, from a regulatory standpoint, that it couldn’t be proposed in Missoula County … on unzoned land,” she said.

But the reason is simple, said Perry Ashby, the developer of Aspen Springs: Ravalli County has bigger tracts of open land. Aspen Springs is on 400 acres, complete with open spaces, parks and 650 units varying in size, type and price.

“It’s very difficult to achieve that objective on a very small piece of land,” Ashby said.

Ravalli County is an ideal location for him, because he was able to buy a large enough tract of land and still build near enough to Missoula to attract homebuyers.

People get fired up against subdivisions like his, but it’s still important to remember the need for affordable housing. Aspen Springs will have homes for everybody, Ashby said, from first-time homeowners to empty-nesters.

“We just can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s still people out there that need housing,” Ashby said.

Zoning in Ravalli County could possibly prohibit a development like Aspen Springs, depending on what the regulations would be. Ashby says he is for zoning, but he doesn’t know if citizens are ready to accept it.

But fast-growing counties like Ravalli County need zoning, insists Rick Laible, R-Darby. He’s ready for it and that’s a big change for him.

“I’ve changed my mind on zoning too,” Laible said. “I used to think that’s why I love Montana because you can do anything with your land you want to do. But that has impacts on your neighborhood.”

Zoning actually gives people a clearer understanding of how much their land is worth and how it can be developed, he said.

“I think the problem with the word zoning is people think they’re going to lose their property rights as opposed to having their property rights assured,” Laible said.

He would never support zoning that made it impossible to develop private property. You can’t take away people’s property rights or property values.

“All land can be developed,” he said. “It’s the degree of development that’s the issue.”

But when a county zones land then it begins to direct growth, which has to be a priority for Ravalli County, Laible said.

“(Local governments) have to start looking at these long-range issues and whether some people like it or not zoning is something that has to take place in these high-growth areas,” he said. “It has to be tied into and be an integral part of long-range planning. What is Ravalli County going to need five years from now, 10 years form now, 20 years from now.”

Patrick O’Herren, a planner for Missoula County and former director of the planning office in Ravalli County, agrees. In fact, if zoning doesn’t come soon, the aspects of western Montana people love could be gone.

“I think we have three to five years max and then it will be too late to save or protect or enhance those resources we believe are important to us today,” O’Herren said. “We’re sorely pressed for time.”

But when it comes to zoning, change can come at glacial speeds. Still, it’s coming.

“I think the county commissioners are terrified if they support zoning they’re not going to get re-elected and I think it’s quite the opposite,” Laible said.

People in Ravalli County are ready, he said, and the first step may come this month.

The Ravalli County commissioners are planning to approve zoning sometime in the next couple of weeks, which would limit the size of box stores in the county to 60,000 square feet.

The county’s attempt at zoning box stores is a good step because it has wide support around the county, said Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott.

The commissioners are also beginning to look at zoning other counties have done. It’s important to keep the ball moving, Chilcott said.

“We’re behind the curve. We’re playing catch up,” he said.

However, zoning is still a controversial issue that deeply divides people in the county.

“For some people it will be too much no matter what we do,” Chilcott said. “For others it will never be enough. We’ve got to find a balance that gives us the tools to protect what we have.”

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  1. Greg, so if I understand this right, plans do not have the force of law and zoning does, but you can’t have zoning without a plan? Is that correct?

  2. Johnathan,

    That’s what I’ve been told over and over. To have enforceable zoning, counties have to have a growth policy. The impression I got from the Montana Association of Planners was without a growth policy, counties could open themselves up for lawsuits over subdivision regulations.

    I think there’s confusion about this even amongst county commissioners.

  3. Greg:
    Superb overview of the growth/zoning issue facing Western Montana. We need a serious inventory of each county’s carrying capacity (water and air quality, wildlife, transportation, etc.) followed by strong leadership from our county commissioners, and more support from the state legislature and administration. And we need it in a hurry. You should also check out the growth in Gallatin County. Hundreds of new homes going up but contrary to what developer Perry Ashby says about his project in Ravalli County, damn little of it is affordable.

  4. The zoning of land should not have elevated priority because there is elevated demand for the land. The idea that people want, or are willing to pay for, a piece of Montana (or the West) is positive and should not be spun. Please think twice when talking about keeping what is current and limiting the ability to change.

    The article states “All land can be developed,” … “It’s the degree of development that’s the issue.” This is an not a good argument and limits the adaptability of any area. Over time circumstances and needs will change, as they have over hundred’s of years. When property is zoned it is taking a snapshot of current societal demands and locking them in, as if we know what we will need 30 years from now and beyond.

    The zoning advocates generally do not consider that the current state of the area is very nice and it got that way through the natural evolution of the properites, not by outside direction.

    The intention of zoning is good, but the result is ineffective in meeting a communities needs….we simply cannot know the future, why should we tie our hands?

  5. Dear Disagree:
    You write as if zoning decisions are carved in stone. I’ve seen more zoning variances allowed in Missoula than there are whitetail deer roaming our subdivisions.

    Zoning is what communuities do to keep gravel pits from locating next to schools and Walmarts from moving into residential neighborhoods, for a start.

    If conservative county commissioners are starting to look into zoning as an option, you know there’s a problem with rampant growth and development.

    When Montana’s population starts to decrease and more open space becomes the norm and not the exception, then I’m all for repealing tough zoning standards.

  6. Pete,

    If zoning variances are the norm than the zoning laws are not allowing the community to adapt. When a community cannot meet the needs of its citizens you’ll have problems, one of them is affordable housing.

    “Rampant” growth occurs when there is a shortage and elevated demand. You mentioned very little affordable housing in Ravalli County. If affordable housing is really the goal, I’m all for it.

    Communities experiencing expansion, but looking for “affordable” housing need to encourage growth and density. It sounds like the zoning laws being discussed are simply an attempt to discourage “rampant” investment and housing.

    The writing on the wall…more housing is the answer to affordability, not less.

  7. Dear Greg,

    I am a local to ryan creek here th eplanned 500 home subdivision will be built and i cant belive the reaction to what is happeninng missoual people thinkits time for us togrow but the pushing out the ranchers whats next my ranch or maybe the ranch right next to the Wills ranch (ryan creek ranch) How can Granit county afford to bump the Drummond school to a calss B School when as of now their budget is so tight they couldnt send their seniors to the college day in Missoula??