The Madison County Planning Board held another long meeting Monday night wrestling over streamside setbacks.
The focus of the meeting surrounded another lengthy discussion about setback distances.
Generally, most board members continued to be for a 500-foot setback, except for Clyde Carroll who had switched his position on the setback during the June planning board meeting.
Carroll now is in favor of the 75-foot setback recommended by the streamside setback steering committee, but not because it would be adequate to protect water quality or riparian habitat.
“I think that you could have a 300-foot or 500-foot (setback) and you would protect things,” Carroll said. “So I’m going with what a committee that was appointed recommended.”
The streamside setback steering committee was formed in 2008 by the planning board and Madison County Commissioners. After more than 20 meetings, 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 discussion at the its meetings always circles back to setback distances.
Last month, the planning board opted to remove the Jefferson River from consideration in this process, though they want to move forward with looking at setbacks on the Jefferson.
Ultimately, the final decision on setbacks along the Madison River will be left up to the Madison County Commissioners.
The consensus on the planning board to go with the larger setback seems to focus on the notion that larger setbacks will protect water quality, river health and wildlife habitat.
It’s important to be cautious when setting setback distances because if it is too small initially, it will be very difficult to increase the size at a later date, said planning board member Donald Loyd.
“It’s a lot harder to go small and go bigger later,” Loyd said. “The most conservative approach is to go bigger.”
Board member Lane Adamson agreed.
The larger setback protects the Madison River’s value to the community for generations to come, Adamson said.
“It’s safer to be conservative than just trying to minimize what you can get by with,” he said.
The Madison County subdivision regulations mandate a 500-foot setback from the Madison River for property being subdivided. Having a similar setback for property that doesn’t have to go through the subdivision process seems to make sense, said board member Eileen Pearce.
“It seems to me that when the subdivision regulations came out with 500-foot (setbacks) they were looking ahead,” Pearce said. “I think it all should be equal.”
However, John Bingham, who is a landowner along the Madison River and was present at Monday’s meeting doesn’t agree with the larger setback idea.
The 500-foot setback is an attack on private property rights, Bingham said.
“You say it’s conservative, I say it’s very high,” he told the board.
Bingham pointed to agriculture as the main problem to water quality in the Madison River, not development. And the planning board isn’t willing to do anything to address the problem.
“I think most of the words spoken here tonight are hollow,” he said.
Bingham, a lawyer, called the board’s deliberations “arbitrary and capricious.” He also challenged the board about whether their discussion at the meeting was genuine.
“I think most of you made up your minds months ago,” he said.
Bingham supports the streamside setback steering committee’s proposal because he felt it was a community-based solution.
“I do not believe that 500 feet supports that goal of community-based resolution,” he said.
However, Pat Bradley, a former planning board member from Twin Bridges, spoke in favor of the larger setback distance and the board’s efforts.
Bradley was disappointed with the tenor of the debate surrounding the setback distances.
“There are many of us out there who support your efforts,” she told the board.
Bradley also presented her top 10 reasons why the board should move forward with the setbacks.
Included in her reasons were because Montana law was on the side of the board’s effort, the board has a history of working to protect the Madison River corridor and the science demonstrates that significant streamside setbacks are crucial.
Board members also talked about a tiered setback system, which would have zones within the setback that would be progressively restrictive closer to the river.
Board member Laurie Schmidt made a motion to adopt a 300 to 500-foot setback on the Madison River and a 100 to 150-foot setback on its tributaries. The shorter distance would represent a zone that would allow no building and little disturbance. The next zone would also not allow building but be slightly less restrictive, possibly allowing yards or playground equipment.
However, the board felt there was little consensus about the motion and felt they still had several issues to work through and voted to table the motion.
In the meantime several assignments were given out in anticipation of next month’s meeting.
Various board members will look at restructuring language in the variance portion of the draft ordinance to better strengthen the language about private property rights. A few members will look more at a tiered setback, analyzing the potential for a three-tiered setback rather than just two tiers. Another group of members will look at models for compensating landowners for setbacks, similar to conservation easements.