Commission Removes Specific Distances From Setback Regulations

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County commissioners removed specific streamside setback distances from proposed subdivision regulations Monday morning, instead opting to take a more generalized approach to the controversial rules.

“If we declare a designated setback I think we’re decreasing the value of their property,” Commissioner Dale Lauman said of property owners along the county’s rivers and lakes. “I think (the setback regulations) should be site specific.”

The county subdivision regulations lay out what steps developers must take to get a new project approved. They apply only to those choosing to subdivide land.

Revisions on the subdivision regulations began last year, because state law required them to be in compliance with the county’s new growth policy. Most of the changes were approved last summer, but the county withheld about 15 of the most contentious regulations, including streamside setbacks, for further review and discussion.

At public hearings last month, though, it was clear that more than a year of workshops, research and public meetings had done little to assuage the dispute over streamside setbacks. Impassioned camps on either side had drawn the fight down to one of water quality versus property rights.

Before Monday’s meeting, the proposed subdivision regulations suggested setback widths be measured from the high water mark to the edge of the 100-year flood plain with the following specifications: The Flathead River and its three forks, the Stillwater River, the Whitefish River and the Swan River would have 250-foot setbacks with 100-foot vegetative buffers; Ashley Creek (from Smith Lake to the Flathead River) and the Fisher River would have 200-foot setbacks with 75-foot vegetative buffers; all other streams would have 60-foot setbacks with 50-foot vegetative buffers.

Commissioner Joe Brenneman suggested removing these definite distances in favor of broader guidelines and addressing setback needs on a case-by-case basis. Lauman and Commissioner Gary Hall agreed.

The commission also removed language saying, if a slope adjacent to a stream has a grade of 50 percent or more for at least 20 feet above the ordinary high-water mark, the setback from the stream would be at least 100 feet from the top of the slope, with a vegetative buffer of 75 feet.

The commission left rules intact that would require a subdivider to provide information including the location of vegetation types and riparian resource areas; vegetative buffer areas; drainage, slope and topography; vegetation types; stream bank stabilization; erosion; wildlife effects; and a hydrological analysis of the site.

Monday’s changes won’t be made permanent until Dec. 8, when the commission is scheduled to hold its final vote on the subdivision regulations in their entirety at 11 a.m.