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.