The Flathead County Commission passed a resolution of intent to add a greenbelt zoning designation to the Flathead County Zoning Regulations, with a public protest period to end in early July.
Greenbelt zoning, technically called B-2HG, designates a business district along a primary or secondary highway, following specific mitigation requirements including tiered building heights and enhanced signage and lighting standards.
There is also a greenbelt requirement, with prescribed percentages of the property to be dedicated for setbacks and bike path easements. At minimum, the zone calls for the first 40 feet of greenbelt from the front property line to be developed and maintained with berms, rockwork, irrigated trees, grass and shrubs.
There are 27 permitted uses, including coffee stands, delis, hotels, offices, quasi-public buildings and restaurants. Conditional uses, of which there are 36 and would need a special permit from the planning office, include bars, Laundromats, any building greater than 3,000 square feet, rental service stores and yards and theaters.
The zoning text amendment stems from a zoning change request from multiple landowners, known as Noonan et al, on 79 acres along U.S. Highway 93 north of Kalispell between Ponderosa Lane and Autumn Court.
The commissioners voted 2-1 to pass the resolution of intent to add the greenbelt zoning text on May 31, with Commissioner Pam Holmquist dissenting.
However, greenbelt zoning has caused a stir among some in the pro-planning community, including Citizens for a Better Flathead. Mayre Flowers, executive director at CBF, said the new zone would work against the effort of multiple agencies to direct people to the city centers.
“This is one of the most significant, sweeping changes of policy that has been put in place,” Flowers said, adding, “our highways are open for any kind of commercial development.”
Flathead County Planning and Zoning Director BJ Grieve disagreed, saying that a new zone is not a policy change.
According to Grieve, there are currently 43 zoning designations in the zoning regulations, some of which, like business and industrial changes, are similar to the greenbelt designation.
“The process of adding a 44th option to the menu does not create zoning on the ground anywhere,” Grieve said.
A landowner can request a new zoning designation or a change from a current designation at any time, Grieve said, but that does not necessarily mean that request will be automatically granted.
For a zone to be put in place, it must follow the requirements laid out in state law, Grieve said. This process involves the public, he said, and there would be opportunity for anyone affected by zoning changes to voice their concerns or support.
However, Flowers said this new zone would adversely affect the county’s planning efforts because it removes predictability.
“This is not a tool to encourage economic development,” Flowers said. “This is a tool that will encourage speculative development.”
The new zone would also undermine highway corridor studies, Flowers said, and could deter business from the city centers.
When considering a zone change, Grieve noted that state law requires the commissioners to make sure the zone is “compatible urban growth in the vicinity of cities and towns that at a minimum must include the areas around municipalities.”
Since a greenbelt zone would only be applicable to county land, Grieve said the commission would be tasked to see how well it fits with nearby city zoning, but it could not be granted within city limits.
A zone must also comply with a county’s growth policy, according to state law.
Grieve also said there are multiple zoning options for landowners who want to change from agricultural designations, including business and industrial zones. Greenbelt zoning allows more uses, he said, but
it also requires review to ensure the development is happening as prescribed.
Deputy County Attorney Peter Steele said the greenbelt zone would not apply to cities or to other planning jurisdictions, including the so-called doughnut around Whitefish.
A 30-day public protest period began on June 4, when the notice of the commission’s resolution of intent was first published. In order to overturn the commission’s vote, 40 percent of the affected landowners would have to protest.
According to the county attorney’s office, this protest period is only applicable to landowners in zoned areas of Flathead County.
Flowers said her organization is putting together a protest letter and plans on alerting affected landowners to the possibility of greenbelt zoning.
For the full text of the B-2HG general business highway greenbelt zoning amendment, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning.
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