After years of discussion, the Lewis and Clark County Commission has approved new zoning rules for the area around Fort Harrison.
Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to create two special zoning districts: the Fort Harrison Rural Growth Area and the Fort Harrison Urban Growth Area. Together, they cover about 20,700 acres, mostly within one mile of the fort boundary.
“This is a special area,” said Commissioner Andy Hunthausen. “I think that it is good policy and good planning going forward for our community.”
The commission had originally considered creating a “Military Affected Area” around the fort, but they decided in December to table that proposal and add some of its provisions to the zoning rules instead.
The Rural Growth Area and Urban Growth Area zoning will limit residential parcels to a minimum size of ten acres, except in “cluster developments” that include undeveloped open space or resource uses. They will also prohibit certain uses, like multi-family housing or landfills.
The new regulations were proposed as a way to implement a joint land use study for the Fort Harrison area, conducted by the fort, Lewis and Clark County, Broadwater County, Helena and Townsend. Leaders say the changes are needed to minimize any future conflicts between military operations and the people in the surrounding area.
But some landowners and residents in the affected areas have raised concerns about the rules, saying they could harm their property values.
Commissioners said they have listened to owners’ concerns and tried to make adjustments. They said they have held about ten public meetings on the plan over the last two years.
“We have given every opportunity, in my opinion, for protest,” said Commissioner Jim McCormick.
The county held a 30-day protest period before taking action on the zoning proposals. During that time, leaders say they received official protests from 5 percent of the roughly 575 property owners in the Rural Growth Area, and 1.5 percent of about 130 owners in the Urban Growth Area.
If 40 percent of the property owners in either area had protested, it would have been considered “sufficient to bar proceedings” under state law. County leaders said they are not sure it would have been an absolute block to the zoning, but they would have had to take it seriously into consideration.
“I have no illusion that people aren’t impacted by this,” said Hunthausen. “Obviously they are, and we’ve heard that from many citizens. But from a greater perspective, and from a planning and policy perspective and a community that’s going to be growing and changing long after we’re out of these seats, we need to lay the foundation for appropriate growth in the future.”
Commissioner Susan Good Geise said she was reluctantly supporting the proposals. In December, she was the only member of the commission who voted against adding elements from the Military Affected Area to the zoning plan – arguing it would be better to start with basic zoning regulations. But she said she still felt it was necessary to implement some kind of zoning.
“Zoning is the thing to do out there,” she said. “I wish it could have been the plain-Jane zoning, but that isn’t what happened.”
McCormick said the decision on these zoning rules will be only the beginning of a broader look at zoning across the county, particularly in the Helena Valley.
“This is a landmark day,” he said.
-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News