Planning board decides to remove Jefferson River from setback ordinance

The Madison County Planning Board decided Monday night to remove the Jefferson River from the current streamside setback ordinance the board is wrestling with.

Removing the Jefferson River from the current setback discussion was the key decision the planning board made Monday during a meeting that lasted more than three hours and focused almost exclusively on the draft setback ordinance.

Madison County began the current process of looking into streamside setbacks for land along the Madison and Jefferson Rivers back in 2008.

On June 7 the planning board and the Madison County Commissioners held a joint public meeting in Ennis in an effort to answer public questions.

Monday’s planning board meeting was the first since the June 7 Ennis meeting and the board members discussed their views on the meeting and the ordinance to this point. The board also took more than an hour of public comment from about 10 citizens who attended the meeting.

The public comment at Monday’s meeting and much of the comment at the meeting earlier in June focused on the differences between the current planning board proposal and the one recommended to them by the streamside setback steering committee.

In 2008, the planning board and commissioners formed the streamside setback steering committee, which was a group of nine interested citizens. The committee held more than 20 public meetings, wrestling over the issue and finally issuing a recommendation to the planning board in October.

The committee recommended a 75-foot setback on the Madison and Jefferson Rivers with a 50-foot setback on all their tributaries.

The planning board has kept much of the recommended ordinance from the committee the same, except for one key point: they are currently looking at 500-foot setbacks on the Madison River. And though the planning board has made some other changes to the steering committee’s recommendation, the setback distance draws the most attention.

At Monday’s meeting many of the planning board members felt the Jefferson River should be removed from the current setback proposal.

“Maybe the Jefferson River should not be included,” said Eileen Pearce. “Maybe we should have more input from people in that area.”

Board member Kathy Looney had researched some of the other setbacks on the Jefferson River in other counties. What she found was that each of the five counties along the Jefferson handled setbacks differently. For instance, the setback along the Jefferson River that flows through Jefferson County is the flood plain boundary plus 100 feet. In Broadwater County, it’s just the flood plain boundary, Looney said.

The Jefferson River is very different from the Madison and should be treated differently, said board member Richard Meehan.

However, besides pointing out the Jefferson River might need its own setback effort, one thing seemed clear at the June 7 meeting – people are in favor of some kind of setback, said board member Donald Loyd.

“I think it would be an error to say a majority of people are opposed to any kind of setback,” Loyd said. “The majority want something. We obviously have some agreement that something needs to be done generally in the valley.”

But what that setback is going to be is still hotly contested and people in the county aren’t going to go along with a 500-foot setback, said board member Dave Maddison, who has been the lone board member opposing the 500-foot setback.

Currently, the Madison County subdivision regulations require a 500-foot setback on the Madison River for property being subdivided. The setback ordinance before the planning board would only impact land not going through the subdivision process.

The planning board has moved too fast on changing the streamside setback steering committee’s recommendation of 75-foot setbacks, Maddison said.

“I think the biggest problem the planning board has now is we shot this one from the hip,” he said.

The other issue is that any zoning can be protested if 40 affected property owners or if property owners representing 50 percent of the property taxed for agricultural purposes or as forest land protest, then the ordinance is repealed. The only way to avoid that is by recommending something to the commissioners that the public buys into.

“We have to develop something that these people are going to say yeah I can live with it but I don’t think we’re there,” Maddison said.

The main problem he hears people bring up is the threat the setbacks pose to their private property rights, he said.

“You’ve got everybody knicking at it all the time – a little bit here, a little bit there and they’re sick of it,” Maddison said.

Despite the controversial nature of streamside setbacks, the planning board has worked hard thinking through their options, said board president John Lounsbury. Ultimately, the planning board is just going to make a recommendation to the county commissioners. What they do with it is up to them.

However the board is responsible for making the best recommendation they can and that’s a responsibility it takes seriously, Lounsbury said.

For him it’s about looking to the future.

“If you like the way the Madison River is right now, that’s what we’re trying to hang on to,” he said. “Let’s just try and come up with what we think is right and then it’s on to the commissioners.”

When the board opened the meeting up for public comment, much of the comments focused on private property rights, the science behind streamside setbacks and the streamside setback steering committee’s proposal of 75-foot setbacks.

John Bingham owns two pieces of property along the Madison River. He wanted the planning board to state where their science comes from pertaining to a 500-foot setback.

“I have followed this daily for two years plus and haven’t seen it,” Bingham said.

The reason he hasn’t seen it, is because there isn’t science for a 500-foot setback, he said. He questioned the planning board’s motivation to make a setback science based.

“This is all about protecting view sheds for people floating down the river,” Bingham said.

Laurie Schmidt pointed out that the planning board has been relying for some of their scientific information on a study done by Janet Ellis from Montana Audubon.

The report sites several scientific sources, Schmidt said.

John Thiede, who owns land near the Warm Springs Fishing Access Site on the lower Madison, believes landowners should be compensated for the rights they might have to give up.

Patricia Stabler, who owns property along the Madison River, also felt this was a good idea and proposed that the planning board look into some sort of program similar to a conservation easement, where landowners could be compensated for giving up their development rights within a certain distance from the river.

The Madison Valley is full of foundations wanting to raise money for good things, maybe a foundation could be started to raise money to pay landowners for setbacks, Stabler asked.

Beyond removing the Jefferson River from the ordinance, the planning board made no more decisions Monday, but decided to look into the Stabler’s idea for paying landowners for their development rights along rivers. They also decided to take more time to look into setback distances along the Madison River.

For more information about the streamside setback process, click here.

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