Zoning Changes Open Ag Lands to Gravel Pits

By Beacon Staff

Recent changes in the zoning language made it easier to build gravel pits in parts of Flathead County and have West Valley residents concerned that it’s an attempt at industrializing their neighborhood. County commissioners say the revisions have no effect on West Valley, and are meant to align county regulations with state legislation.

West Valley residents, however, who feel they’ve been burned before, don’t trust them.

“You’ll get this passed, then change the West Valley plan to include AG-40 and AG-80 chunks,” Tom Clark, a West Valley resident, said to commissioners at a recent public hearing. “It’s all part of one long process to bypass the majority of small landholders and get by the Supreme Court decision.”

The debated changes involve county land zoned for agricultural uses that can’t be divided into parcels smaller than 40 or 80 acres. Previous language essentially made land in those AG-40 and AG-80 districts residential, which allowed the county to deny gravel pits in those areas.

But, with a unanimous vote earlier this month, commissioners changed that language to clarify that land zoned AG-40 and AG-80 is not primarily residential, removing their ability to deny gravel pits in those zones. New pits can still be conditioned.

The change affects about 35,000 acres in Flathead County. While AG-40 and AG-80 zoning is somewhat scattered throughout the valley, there are four general groupings: large sections south and southeast of Echo Lake and a smaller section directly west of the lake; a large bloc east of downtown Kalispell between Fairmont Road and the Flathead River; land south of Foys Lake; and property on either side of KM Ranch Road, southwest of Whitefish.

Noticeably absent, given the numerous West Valley residents who spoke out against the change, are AG-40 and AG-80 lands in West Valley. That area is one of a few unique zoning districts in the county, where zoning is based on the neighborhood plan rather than standard designations.

West Valley residents believe that will soon change as their neighborhood plan is updated to comply with the county’s new growth policy. A rural landscape still dotted by hay bales, barns and cows, it seems likely the area would fit the definition of agricultural zoning if standardized.

With that, residents say, would come a flood of gravel pits into an area where most people oppose them.

“I think most of the people who live here don’t mind driving eight miles for a gallon of milk,” West Valley resident Kip Willis said. “Not having gas stations, convenience stores and grocery stores is part of what defines this community. It’s what we want, and because they don’t like it, they’re trying to change that.”

It’s a debate that’s been heated in West Valley and throughout the county for at least the past five years. In 2004, a zoning decision eliminated the county’s ability to impose any conditions on most gravel pits in the valley. The state Legislature took action, clarifying that local governments could impose conditions on gravel pits in nonresidential zoning districts and prohibit pits in residential areas. But the new law didn’t define residential.

Flathead County commissioners subsequently approved an amendment in 2005 that said any zoning district with single-family homes or similar residential uses as a permitted use was considered a residential district, essentially allowing the county to prohibit mines in almost all zoning areas.

Commissioners formed an Open-Cut Mining Advisory Committee to look for ways to improve the language of that decision to balance the needs of county residents with the interests of large landowners and gravel-pit operators.

The AG-40 and AG-80 changes were that committee’s recommendation, and commissioners insist that – not West Valley – are the reasons for the changes.

“I think this change represents what I see as the intention of that law,” Commissioner Joe Brenneman said. “I felt like this was a reasonable balance for what they were asking for and what we were willing to go along with, any claims of how this will affect West Valley are just conjecture right now.”