A River Runs Past it

By Beacon Staff

Later this month, the Flathead County Planning Board will take up the most controversial clauses of the much-debated interim subdivision regulations, including floodplain provisions, fire hazard areas, and the encouragement of “clustering” structures in new subdivisions. But at public comment hearings in recent months, the most ardent and emotional speakers by far have turned out to support or oppose streamside setback designations.

“It was probably the most contentious issue in the draft provisions,” said Jeff Harris, Flathead County planning and zoning director.

The streamside setback issue reaches to the core of growth’s positive and negative effects. Unable to reach a semblance of consensus from the public on streamside setback and the other issues, county commissioners punted further hearings back to the planning board so the subdivision regulations could move forward and be amended later.

Those specific issues need to be taken up in more public hearings to generate even further awareness and ideas for a solution, County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said.

“The real reason is to get some creative juices flowing on this thing,” Brenneman said. “We all want to keep the Flathead Valley, and the river the way it is, but in order to do that we need to put our money where our mouth is.”

In the second draft of the subdivision regulations, setback provisions would have restricted construction within about 300 feet of the Flathead River, with narrower zones for smaller waterways. No one denies that leaving those “buffer zones” intact preserves high water quality – of the utmost importance to valley residents on all sides of the issue.

“If an area wants to maintain the wildlife natural settings that they’ve become accustomed to, than these are the regulations that need to come into place to protect those habitats,” said Mark Deleray, a fisheries biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

But Fred Hodgeboom, who has been an outspoken critic of streamside setback in public hearings, voices the widely held opinion that such provisions are an infringement on the rights of private property owners, who should be able to do what they want on their land.

“People say that setbacks are the simple answer, one simple recipe,” Hodgeboom said. “A simple recipe that is legislated when dealing with highly variable natural resources is simply wrong.” Hodgeboom supports allowing citizens to use voluntary “best management” practices to protect water quality and develop their land as they see fit: “Enforcement is unnecessary because people want to do it – that’s why it’s effective.”

Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, has been at those same public hearings, arguing that setback provisions increase property values by preserving the lifestyle that draws people to the Flathead in the first place.

“In the end, it’s going to increase the quality of life that encourages people to come and invest here,” Flowers said.

The first two, of what are likely to be many, public meetings on these issues are scheduled for July 12 and July 26.

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