Final hearing held on Libby zoning changes

| June 19, 2020 7:59 AM

The last public hearing for a pair of once-controversial zoning proposals in Libby ended with a resident angrily accusing city councilors of ramming through the changes.

“Don’t you think this would be appropriate for a time when there is not a virus concern?” said Libby resident and business owner Don Thornton, the sole member of the public in attendance June 15. “I just don’t think you guys are doing this the right way.”

The dual proposals, which have undergone months of debate and adjustment, would impose tighter restrictions on business activity in the two districts and require business owners to adhere to aesthetic guidelines. Properties along the U.S. Highway 2 corridor would fall into the business district. A section of town anchored by California and Mineral avenues would comprise the downtown district.

Certain types of businesses would be barred from going up in each district. Along the highway, for example, that includes commercial storage, kennels and inpatient health facilities. Uses banned in the downtown district include adult stores, crematoriums and bulk fuel storage, among others.

Requirements for exterior designs and improvements proved the most onerous to the opponents.

Those included requiring business owners to use windows or doorways for at least 50 percent of their façade, restrictions on signage and the banning of blank storefronts. The rules also forbid the use of fluorescent, DayGlo or neon materials. Plywood, asphalt and pre-engineered metal materials also are banned.

Existing structures are exempt from the new rules. But early versions of the plan required any existing buildings that underwent a renovation exceeding 10 percent of its exterior to adhere to the new guidelines.

Faced with strident opposition — hearings in the autumn months were often standing room only — city councilors dropped the remodeling clause. Other controversial measures were likewise dropped or modified during the lengthy public hearing process.

The proposals’ path to adoption met another wrinkle earlier this year when the city attorney discovered an attorney general ruling from decades before that suggested Libby needed a zoning board to enact the changes.

City councilors subsequently created a zoning commission and held another set of public hearings. These, coming after officials toned down the rules, were lightly attended.

During the zoning commission’s February public hearing on the measures, city councilors waiting for their regularly scheduled meeting to begin made up the bulk of the public in attendance.

A final public hearing, ahead of a city council vote, was planned for mid-March. Concern over the escalating COVID-19 pandemic prompted officials to postpone.

That led to the June 15 hearing. Thornton and a member of a resident-led government board were the only two people in city council chambers.

Thornton accused city councilors of stifling public debate by holding the hearing during a pandemic.

“You don’t think they’re going to be gun shy with COVID-19?” he asked.

Mayor Brent Teske defended the process, arguing that the council held a bevy of meetings and hearings on the topic since it first arose. Were attendance greater, they were prepared to move the meeting into the larger Ponderosa Room, adjacent to City Hall.

City Councilor Rob Dufficy, who noted the hearing was advertised in newspapers, said that he had spoken to several residents in the lead up to the hearing. Most were happy with the alterations to the proposal, he said.

“They expressed their opinion; it got changed,” Dufficy said. “[This document] reflects a lot of that.”

Asked what he would have preferred, Thornton told city councilors that they should have sent the proposal by certified mail to all individuals affected by the changes. Recipients could have mailed back their thoughts on it. Go from there, he said.

Teske pointed out that they would have still had to hold the public hearings.

“That is part of the process. … It’s not like nobody didn’t know,” he said. “If you live in the city, I encourage you to run for council.”

City councilors will vote on the ordinance changes accompanying the twin proposals in the coming weeks.