Last week, Madison County Commissioners decided unanimously to not adopt building setback regulations on the Madison River and its tributaries.
The decision seems to close the door on nearly four years of work in the county to look into developing some way to address streamside setbacks in the Madison Valley.
The commissioner’s decision protects property rights and addresses, somewhat, the divisions that existed in the community about the issue, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz.
“Certainly over the course of the life of this process we’ve heard numerous comments, many of them in favor and, in my mind, many more opposed to setbacks,” Schulz said. “Specifically speaking most of the people I talked with are content with a recommendation and not at all in support of a regulation.”
The history of streamside setbacks in Madison County is fairly extensive. Currently, the Madison County subdivision regulations have a 500-foot building setback from the Madison River.
Four years ago commissioners asked the planning board to look at bringing some sort of consistency in the regulations, said Madison County Commissioner Jim Hart. The commissioners wanted to look at the differences in regulations between the subdivided land and regular private property.
The planning board and commissioners decided to appoint a citizen steering committee to advise the planning board on the issue, which would then in turn pass a recommendation on to the commissioners.
So three years ago a group of interested citizens began holding public meetings to address streamside setbacks on the Madison and Jefferson River and their tributaries.
By all accounts it was a tough task to try and reach consensus and work through the varying opinions on the issue. But in October 2009, the committee made a recommendation to the planning board.
The committee’s recommendation was for a do not disturb zone of 75 feet from the Madison River and 50 feet from the tributaries, said Richard Lessner, executive director of the Madison River Foundation and member of the streamside
The committee’s recommendation called for any building setback to start after that 75-foot non-disturbance area.
The planning board took the committee’s recommendation and also held public meetings and hearings on the subject, finally settling on a recommendation that called for a 500-foot jurisdictional area with a 150-foot buffer zone and a 300-foot building setback on the Madison River.
The planning board issued their recommendation to the county commissioners last year.
While both the steering committee’s recommendation and the planning board’s recommendation were for a regulation, the county commissioners didn’t feel like there was enough agreement anywhere to ultimately institute a regulation, Hart said.
“Part of how we decided on that (recommendation) is we did not see a definitive answer from either side,” he said.
It didn’t make any sense to guess at a compromise that would satisfy people, Hart said. The practical approach was to go a different direction and adopt a recommendation instead.
Hart’s idea is to attach a setback recommendation to the Code of the New West, which is a handout available through the planning department for new property owners in Madison County.
At their meeting Monday, the planning board decided to have no official comment on the commissioner’s decision.
“The planning board pretty much across the board said ‘no comment,’ so I’m just following through with that,” planning board president Kathy Looney said Tuesday.
It’s not clear now whether or not the planning board will be involved in crafting the setback recommendation for the Madison River.
Lessner was disappointed, but not surprised by the commissioner’s decision.
“Our rivers and streams are no worse off today than they were, but this means another added level of protection is not available,” he said.
Lessner felt the streamside setback committee’s recommendation to the planning board was never given the consideration or understanding it deserved.
“I wished the planning board had taken what the steering committee had done more seriously,” he said. “I don’t think they understood what we tried to accomplish as a group of citizens.”
Somehow the public dialogue became focused on the size of setback – 75 or 300 feet. But the point the steering committee tried to make was that a one-size-fits-all setback didn’t make sense.
“Our view was you can’t have a number that applies to all parcels of property up and down the river and all tributaries,” Lessner said.
Designing a recommendation will involve some of this type of consideration, said Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel.
Happel would like to take the goals inherent in the idea of streamside setbacks and put that into a strongly worded recommendation that could gain broad community support.
“I’m really hoping we can set this up in a way that it’s a strong enough suggestion that it becomes part of our policy,” he said.
Happel supported the recommendation over a regulation based largely on principles he’s held to his whole life.
“I’m pleased to see that we are consistently protecting property rights. That’s kind of what I hang my hat on,” he said. “I think we’re much better served if we try to get people to do things voluntarily rather than trying to force new regulations.”
Land stewardship makes good sense economically and philosophically, Happel said. He just doesn’t believe people should be forced to do it with land use regulations.
“You’ve got your freedom, you’ve got your property rights, now you’ve got to be good stewards,” he said.
If a recommendation can garner broad community support, then it could have the same impact a regulation would have without compromising property rights, Happel said.
Despite not taking the planning board’s suggestion, Hart was impressed with the work it and the steering committee put into the streamside setback issue.
“They did the best they could,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better planning board in the state.”
The county commissioners at this point have no timeline for developing the new streamside setback recommendation or how it would fit into the Code of the New West pamphlet.