Commissioners vote against setback regulations, look to voluntary guidelines

More than a year after receiving a recommendation on streamside setbacks from the county planning board, Madison County Commissioners decided Tuesday against streamside setback regulations for the Madison River.

The commissioners instead chose unanimously to use the planning board’s proposal as voluntary guidelines for landowners along the Madison River wishing to build on their property.

“The Madison River is certainly a national treasure,” commissioner Dan Happel said at Tuesday’s meeting. “But I also believe in the rights of individuals to use their property.”

The decision comes after a drawn out process that started nearly four years ago, when the commissioners decided to initiate a streamside setback citizen advisory committee to look into the issue of setbacks along the Madison and Jefferson River and its tributaries.

The goal was to address land that didn’t fall under the scope of the subdivision regulations, which called for a 500-foot setback on the Madison River.

This citizen committee met for nearly two years on the topic and ultimately couldn’t reach a complete consensus on the issue. However they recommended a regulation to the Madison County Planning Board of a minimum of 75-foot setbacks on the Madison and Jefferson River and 50-foot setbacks on the tributaries.

The Madison County Planning Board took the recommendation, and dropped the Jefferson River from the regulation and increased the building setbacks to 300 feet. This included a 500-foot jurisdictional area and 150-foot streamside buffer zone.

Ultimately, the final decision rested with the county commissioners, who chose to take neither recommendation for a setback regulation, but rather go with voluntary guidelines, expressing deep concerns about infringement of private property rights.

“I don’t think that adding layer upon layer of regulation is the way to solve the problem,” Happel continued. “The way to solve problems is by allowing people to use their ingenuity and use their capacities and make it happen through a free process to protect liberty.”

Commissioner Dave Schulz indicated that support for and opposition to the proposal was fairly even among concerned parties. He emphasized the process for establishing streamside protections on the Madison River, to some degree or another, began decades ago, and the county planning board has done extensive research into the issue.

“We know there is an incredible amount of passion, that not everybody is of the same thought exactly, and a lot of people have put a lot of time and thought into this,” Schulz said.

Commissioners expressed their confidence in Madison Valley landowners’ ability to take initiative and manage their property the way they see best, without regulation from the county.

“The folks in the Madison Valley are good stewards of their own property, otherwise they lose money,” said commissioner Jim Hart. “I don’t think that goes too far away from someone who owns an acre or 500 feet.”

Happel favored the proposal as a guideline, but not as regulation.

“I would support any effort to protect the environment, the river, the resources of our nation and be good stewards, but it has to be through a voluntary process,” he said. “We will do everything we can to have people comply as long as its voluntarily, and we will do everything in our power to make sure that the Madison River remains a very pristine, very nice river.”

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