What do you think about setbacks on the Madison River?

Streamside setbacks on the Madison River are the hot topic of the summer and in an effort to help inform the discussion and add to the debate, The Madisonian is posting a poll question on our Website.

Rather than take a side and throw more fuel on the fire, I’d like to find out what people think. This first question is going to be simple: What kind of setback do you favor on the Madison River?

This question assumes that people generally favor some sort of setback. I assume this because hardly anyone who has spoken publically about the setback issue is against setbacks altogether. Some are in favor of the 75-foot setback proposed by the streamside setback steering committee, some are in favor of the 500-foot setback currently proposed by the Madison County Planning Board and some are in favor of a compromise.

In addition to the poll question, which will be located on the right hand side of The Madisonian’s homepage, I encourage people to leave comments in the comment section of the online version of this column. I preview comments before posting them and will weed out any comments that abuse the civil spirit of the discussion we should be having. Over the course of a couple weeks, we’ll pick out the best of the comments and run them in the newspaper.

My hope is that between the poll and the comments, people in the community can come to better and more informed understanding of what people are thinking and what they want to see happen with streamside setbacks. In addition to these features on the Website, we will continue to write articles following the discussion of setbacks by the planning board, the county commissioners and the public.

For some perspective on where things are at currently, here’s a short bit of chronology.

On June 8, the Madison County Planning Board and Commissioners held a public meeting in Ennis to discuss streamside setbacks along the Madison River.

The crux of the meeting was discussion of the streamside setback ordinance being considered by the planning board. The public had the opportunity to comment on the proposal and also ask questions of a panel of experts amassed by the planning board.

Public comment at the June 8 meeting, as well as at the June 28 planning board meeting, seemed to outline both sides of this contentious issue.

Those against 500-foot setbacks point out that the steering committee worked diligently to come up with a consensus on 75-foot setbacks and that science doesn’t support 500-foot setbacks.

For those against the 500-foot setbacks, the argument seems to boil down to the violation of private property rights that would result from such a zoning ordinance.

Another common complaint against the 500-foot setback is that it would be more to protect the visual aesthetics of the river and is not necessary for the protection of water quality and riparian habitat.

However, those who spoke in favor of the larger setbacks at the June 8 meeting talked about preserving the water quality and habitat in the Madison Valley for future generations. Their comments seemed to point out that while the water in the Madison River and its tributaries may be clean and healthy now, that could change without adequate protection against future development in the river corridor.

Proponents of larger setbacks also point out that, in addition to river and riparian health, the Madison River continues to be a major economic draw for Madison County and southwest Montana. Protecting the river corridor from development protects property values, while ensuring economic and community health for all of those who live in the Madison Valley.

To say this issue is contentious would be an understatement. The lines are drawn, the opposing sides are entrenched and lawyers have been hired. (One even attended the June 8 meeting and brought along a court reporter to take minutes.)

The history of streamside setbacks in Madison County goes all the way back to the late 1970s and 80s.

Setbacks were formalized in the Madison County subdivision regulations in 1993, according to the history sheet provided by the Madison County planning department. The subdivision regulations say land along the Madison River that goes through the subdivision process must have 500-foot building setbacks.

In 2008, the planning board and county commissioners organized a citizen steering committee to look at setbacks along the Madison and Jefferson Rivers. The main concern was land being developed outside of the subdivision process. This committee held more than 20 meetings in about as many months.

In October, after much back and forth, the committee recommended to the planning board that the setbacks along the Madison and Jefferson Rivers be 75 feet.

In May, the planning board voted 10-1 to change the setback distance in the steering committee’s recommendation to 500 feet along the Madison River.

The planning board is still considering the proposal and recently voted to remove the Jefferson River from the current ordinance. It felt that setbacks on the Jefferson River should be taken up with a separate process.

Eventually, the planning board will hold a public hearing concerning its proposal and make a final recommendation to the county commissioners. The final decision will be up to the county commissioners.

And, as always, letters to the editor are welcomed and appreciated.

To find the poll, go to our Website www.madisoniannews.com.

12 Responses to What do you think about setbacks on the Madison River?

  1. Pat Bradley says:

    There is good science on river setbacks that show the relationship between riparian ecosystems and land well beyond river’s edge. This fact was not considered by the committee. A paper being circulated by a “Landowners’ Coalition” is full of misinformation and the public should investigate. The facts are: viewsheds are not considered in the document; variances addressed are fair; rebuilding is allowed in the same place; disturbance is confined to construction; the committee is an ad hoc group with no decision-making authority and they know that; the length of committee’s deliberation has nothing to do with any recommendation–they spent most of the 21 months only trying to achieve a landowner compromise; it was a decision- compromise, not a concensus.

    The Planning Board has spent many more months than 21 researching the science and reasons to protect the watershed and have every right, and should, make sound recommendations to the commissioners. This is about river protection which will benefit all landowners in the long run.

  2. Pat Bradley says:

    …I forgot to add to my previous message, the setbacks for subdivisions and private construction must be consistent to be fair to all — hence, 500 feet is right and reasonable

  3. dick van derheyden says:

    No Way with a setback for single family lots! 500′ ok for MAJOR SUBDIVISIONS, NOT SINGLE LOTS. My fear is if the County approves this they will be bankrupt in less than a year.

  4. John East says:

    The 75 ft that the committee came up with was fair for the land owners and the river. Their is no one size fits all and that is why we said if need be another 75ft buffer would be imposed.We on the committee felt viewshed wasnt what we were there for because what one person likes another wouldnt.The main point was the river and how to keep it as beautiful in years to come as it is now,without taking someones property rights completly away from them.The subdivison setback and this setback are two completly different things.This goes back to people who bought under one set of rules and now those rules are changed after the fact so what you bought you now cant use.
    We have rules lets enforce them and get back to live and let live.When our house was built in 1984 we and it fit in now after 26 years we dont? Something is wrong with this picture.

  5. David Telenko says:

    There does not appear to be any is concrete scientific evidence based on acutal studies done on the Madison River specifically to justify anything close to a 500′ setback. A setback committee was put in place to put forth a draft of this setback ordinance that took place over many months and now seems to simply time just wasted.

    A committee of local residents with various motivations put together this draft over many months time and I think it needs to be both considered and honored.

  6. Don Bowen says:

    At the Planning Board meetings we hear about current science studies but when the Planning Board is asked to produce these studies the only thing produced is the opinion of Janet Ellis, a self proclamed bird expert. Those of us who live in the Madison Valley know that wild life adjusts to man-made structures very well. Especially the homes that are well-landscaped and provide additonal food from the plants and flowers. It would be refreshing if the Planning Board would pay more attention to a real county expert, Ralph Hamler, our Sanitarian who does not have a problem with 75′ setbacks and he does a great job in protecting our water quality. There is no question that the value of the majority of the vacant parcels bordering the river would be substantially reduced if anything in excess of a 75′ set back is established. Most property values would decrease from 20% to 60% with an additional setback beyond 75′. That is a “taking” of property rights. Property rights is important to all of us who own property in the Madison valley and if this Planning Board and County Commissioners overide the recommendation of the Steering Committee, comprised of prominent volunteer citizens that the Planning Board appointed, what will be the next issue they take on which may affect your property rights? And, who would ever agree to serve on another committee under the Planning Board?.

  7. Michael Weigand says:

    Last year the Steering Committee was ready to recommend 75 foot setbacks. What happened? Many lots, 10 acre, and 20 acre parcels were subdivided many years ago giving the owners certain development rights. Now some individuals in the area want to take those property rights without compensation. I do not want to see my tax dollars wasted fighting law suits.

    Some lots and parcels could not be built on if there is a 300 foot set back. Of the three choices I feel 75 feet is the the only fair choice.

  8. John Lawrence says:

    Let them build right on the river. 20 years from now the banks of the river will be wall to wall houses. People do not come from all over the country to fish this river and see a bunch of houses. Kill the beauty of the river and you kill the attraction. The loss of income down the road for Ennis will be a business killer. But hey, at least the rich people will have nice summer homes.

  9. Lorraine Snipper says:

    Many people who support the 500-foot setbacks have never seen maps of just how many properties are currently undeveloped along the river, in the 40+ miles between Highway 87 and Ennis. I have–I compiled the maps in 2008, over a period of several months, so it is not a phantom idea of some corridor that will be “over-built” in 20 years, or even 50 years. This is a concrete visual that is available to anyone who wants to see it, and it should be available at the next Planning Board meeting on July 26th. In the meantime, I wrote this week in The Madisonian about language referred to as “the science” being taken out of context. I’m not a conspiracy nut, but there seems to be a “piling on” effect, being pushed by the Wizard of Oz, which is based on nothing but vapors. Are the rights of 80 citizens to be trampled—can you really say that 80 additional homes over 40 miles is “over-built?” There is a fair number of undeveloped, affected properties that exist within those 80 lots that are south of Highway 87, which isn’t even floated! Rather than deal with emotional triggers, look at the “science”. In the public meeting, Janet Ellis said that all wildlife acts differently. She simply compiled research that is all over the board. My main point, though, is that wildlife requires “riparian” areas, and these do not exist along most of the Madison River in the depth to which she would aspire. Not close. This is a very divisive issue, yet some are happy to leap into the divide on the side of “conservation” or “economic viability” without having done ALOT of research. Knee-jerk reactions, even with noble intent, have lasting consequences. Can you really tell me, with a straight face, that 80 additional homes set back 75 or 150 feet, over 40 miles, will keep fishermen away? Envision almost two football fields’ length, and that is what you have with a 500-foot setback. That’s a pretty big pill for me, an affected landowner, to swallow. Why not let conservation groups or foundations buy scenic easements from willing landowners, who will lose the largest portion of their land value with a 500-foot setback? Remember, some of these properties are large, and may ultimately be subdivided, falling under new subdivision rules. Let the conservation interests that are pushing this put their money, instead of their non-existing “science”, into play. I have many more thoughts on this, that extend from the enactment of the Growth Policy to our current state, but I don’t want to confuse the issues here. Suffice to say, there is a steam-rolling going on that started in 2006 with the Growth Policy, jumping right into setbacks, and after setbacks will come zoning. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But hey, Ennis will be exempt, right?

  10. Rod Collins says:

    It is easy for people to comment on and have an opinion in regards to stealing other peoples property for a grand cause. This whole thing is a sham especially considering the amout of properties that will be effected on the Madison River from Reynolds Pass to Ennis. Do you really think that another forty to fifty homes would make a difference in 35 miles.

    Don’t forget property rights are actually the same as personal rights. What happens to the property rights of owners on the Madison River and elsewhere may someday come back and bite those that are in favor this stealing of property. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors property.

  11. Jed Grove says:

    A 75 foot setback is not enough, I think in order to preserve
    the river for generations to come the 500 foot setback would
    be the way to go.

  12. Bill Morton says:

    The people who want setbacks are people who do NOT own riverfront property so they no vested interest other than to punish those of us who have the resources to be on the river. The 87 parcels on 55 miles of riverfront is a “dot” of property that would affect the river AND there are NO studies that reflect riverfront property owners do any damage to the river, aesthetic or not!!! The cows do 99% of the damage!!!
    The Board is dealing with the “taking of property” and not realism. The inverse condemnation which is being proposed will certainly force legal action.
    All of us who live in the Madison River Valley want to save our river—and especially the owners of riverfront property.

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