Planning board to hold hearing on growth policy update

For the last year, the Madison County Planning Board has been working to update the Madison County Growth Policy and a draft version of their efforts will be the topic of a public hearing later this month.

The Madison County Growth Policy was initially passed in 2006. Before that the growth policy existed under the name of Madison County Comprehensive Plan. The first comprehensive plan was approved by county commissioners back in 1973, said Charity Fechter, Madison County Planning Director.

When the Montana legislature passed the provisions for county growth policies in 1999, the statute asked that counties update their growth policies every five years, Fechter said.

In starting the update to the existing growth policy, the planning board circulated a citizen survey late last fall to see what changes or updates were needed. Out of about 7,500 surveys set out, 368 were returned. After the surveys were collected, the planning board held public meetings in communities around the county seeking more input.

“Overall the response we got was it (the existing growth policy) was serving us well,” she said.

Fechter calls the growth policy a guiding document, but by Montana law it has no regulatory power. However, the planning board uses the growth policy for guidance when analyzing subdivision proposals.

Ideally, the growth policy defines things people of Madison Valley feel are important when considering new development proposals, she said. The update contains five guiding principles: Locate new development near existing infrastructure, protect our river corridors, preserve our most productive agricultural lands, new development should pay its own way and respect private property rights.

“This tells us where the community said it wanted to go and how we intend to get there,” she said. “It’s considered an update rather than a new one because we didn’t change much.”

Since the general opinion from the survey and meetings was that the growth policy was still serving its purpose, the board focused its efforts on the few things that needed updated, Fechter said.

The planning board combined the comprehensive plan from 1999 with the 2006 version of the growth policy, she said. Prior to this, the comprehensive plan was included as a separate document in the growth policy. Now there will be just one document.

The board also updated the maps and base data along with existing conditions to keep the growth policy current.

The board also included a section on sand and gravel as required by the legislature, Fechter said.

However, not everyone is excited about the update to the growth policy and is leery about some of what it contains.

Duane Thexton was involved with the process the county underwent to formulate streamside setbacks on the Madison River. The process took nearly five years and included forming a citizen advisory committee and more work from the planning board. The advisory committee essentially recommended a minimum setback of 75 feet on the Madison River. The planning board expanded that proposal to include a building setback of 300 feet and a 150-foot streamside buffer zone.

Ultimately the commissioners decided not to act on the setbacks, but rather make the planning board’s proposal a recommendation to landowners. The setbacks would have only impacted property that didn’t fall under the Madison County subdivision regulations, which require a 500-foot setback on the Madison River.

Thexton sees the growth policy update as another attempt to implement zoning along the river corridors, an issue that seems to have been decided already.

“We’re revisiting divisive community issues,” he said.

Also the growth policy has so many layers of analysis for landowners looking to subdivide their property that it becomes very cumbersome.

“It pretty much puts everybody under some sort of zoning or regulatory requirements other than just river developments,” he said.

He applauds the planning board for putting all the past documents into one growth policy, but in the process the board seems to have expanded the regulations.

“A lot of the updates expand the regulations and make them a lot more restrictive to landowners and that’s the crux of my concern,” Thexton said.

He realizes that the growth policy isn’t a regulation, but as a guiding document it can serve a similar purpose.

“It’s used to review things, even though it’s maybe not, on the surface, as strong legally as subdivision regulations, it’s something people use,” he said. “The net effect is much the same.”

However, the effort of the planning board was to see what people thought was effective about the current growth policy and what needed to be changed, said planning board president Laurie Schmidt. The majority of what the planning board heard from citizens was the growth policy was good; it just needed a few tweaks.

“I think we got a good response and 90 percent of it validated that people believed the same things they did at the 2006 growth policy,” Schmidt said.

Some other changes people wanted to see was more inclusion of tourism studies from the University of Montana Institute of Tourism, she said. This would provide more current numbers about tourism traffic and use through Madison County.

The other request was better communication from the planning board and county commissioners on planning issues. The idea with more public outreach is to simply help keep citizens connected on what is happening in the county, Schmidt said.

And people were concerned that property rights continuing to be a guiding principle in the growth policy, she said.

“Private property rights has always been a guiding principle and that didn’t change,” Schmidt said.

The planning board will hold a public hearing on the growth policy Oct. 29 at the Madison County Courthouse in Virginia City. The goal of the hearing is to find out what the public thinks about the update and where more changes could be made.

“We want to hear constructive suggestions on the draft that’s before them,” she said.

The growth policy updates are available at libraries around the county as well as on the web at the Madison County Planning Department’s website.

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