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More fur flies in Lower Yaak Zoning District discussion

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | April 30, 2024 7:00 AM

For many, bringing up the word zoning in rural Montana is akin to using a curse word in a place of worship.

The subject brought strong feelings to the surface again during the Lincoln County Commissioners meeting on Wednesday, April 24.

Commissioners were prepared to vote on a resolution that would have created the Lower Yaak Zoning District.

But following a presentation by planners and hearing comments from many county residents, the trio opted to table the decision to a future date.

Many of those in attendance voiced their opinions that the matter should be tabled so more comment could be heard. Many are concerned about the precedence that could be set if a zoning district is established.

A small group of Lower Yaak residents sought the formation of the district in the summer of 2023, mainly in response to the potential development of two subdivisions - the South Yaak and West Pine Creek properties. Commissioners gave the plats preliminary approval at their April 12, 2023, meeting.

District 3 commissioner Josh Letcher is one who is not in favor of the zoning district. He made a motion to deny the formation of the zoning district.

“It seems we shouldn’t be doing anything to limit anything that can bring money into the county,” Letcher said. “Taking schools out is hypocritical, too.”

Some area residents are concerned that property owner and developer Owen Baisden (Investment Foundation, LLC), who is the CEO at Turning Winds, a facility in the Upper Yaak that provides treatment for teens 13- to 18-years of age suffering mental health and substance abuse disorders, may open a similar facility in the neighborhood.

Baisden said in an interview with The Western News following Wednesday’s meeting that his plans for a facility on the property may include a 10-bed structure where counselors could work with autistic kids.

“We’re still not sure if we will do it, but it has the potential to bring 20 to 25 jobs to the area,” Baisden said. “It would be different than Turning Winds.”

According to the application by Baisden, his company sought approval of a residential and commercial 78-acre parcel of land that will have seven single family lots ranging in size from 8 acres to 13.37 acres on the South Yaak. Those lots lie just north of the Yaak River Road.

One other lot, 0.30 acre, lies just south of the byway.

In the West Pine subdivision, five lots are proposed on 37.5 acres with residential commercial designations. Three lots, each about 10 acres in size, sit just north of Yaak River Road. A fourth lot, also north of the road and east of Pine Creek is 5.6 acres. The fifth lot, 1.42 acres, lies just south of the road.

Matt Franke, a property owner in the Yaak for several decades, and some neighbors of his, first sought the formation of a Citizen Initiated Zoning District, calling it, “A great idea to steer the growth in Lincoln County.”

At the April 24 meeting, Franke said his biggest concern was the possibility of commercial development on the land that Baisden owns.

“Anything can go, you could end up with a gay bar or a strip bar or an aluminum plant,” Franke said.

Some county residents who attended last week’s meeting are concerned about the precedence a zoning district could set.

“I don’t have a stake in this, but I do own land in the Upper Yaak and the brakes need to be pumped on this decision,” Phil Soucy said.

Ryan Olsen explained he bought a farm in the area last year and he was concerned a zoning district will infringe on the property rights of landowners.

John Baisden, the founder of Turning Winds, called the process a, “sham” and wanted it tabled.

“If I could zone out (profanity) neighbors, I would, but I can’t,” he said. “If we’re gonna do this, let’s make sure we get it right.”

The commissioners approved moving ahead with a plan to create a zoning district in the Lower Yaak area at a public hearing on Aug. 30.

The hearing lasted nearly two hours and saw comments from several people, some of whom returned to the podium repeatedly to voice their thoughts and opinions.

The commissioners first voted to deny a petition to create a zoning district under Part 1 of of the enabling legislation of state law. That requires 60% of the property owners who own at least 50% of the land in the area to be zoned to sign a petition for its creation. It would have required a board be established, including three commissioners, either the county surveyor or county clerk and recorder, two citizen members who resides in a different district and a county official appointed by the commissioners.

But in a move for expediency, the commissioners did opt for the second motion which means the county Planning Board began a public process to create the Lower Yaak Zoning District via Part 2.

In a memo from KMR Consulting’s Kristin Smith, she wrote, “In practice, communities across the state have found administration of Part 1 districts to be challenging and have instead opted to utilize Part 2 for consistency in addressing comprehensive land use planning activities. By law, Part 2 zoning must be guided by and consider the general policy and pattern of development set out in the growth policy.”

The zoning district’s proposed permitted uses would include single-family dwellings, accessory dwelling units, not to exceed one dwelling per legal lot, and accessory buildings, not to exceed two units per legal lot.

The minimum lot size would be 20 acres and the maximum permitted density would be one dwelling unit per 20 acres. Structures would have to be set back at least 100 feet from side, front and rear adjacent properties and the Highway 508 (Yaak River Road) right-of-way.

District 1 Commissioner Brent Teske said he had a problem with the 20-acre provision.

“The 20 acres never came up before, what’s going on now?” Teske said. “Should it be stricken or revised?”

Some of the prohibited uses would include commercial and industrial uses, academies, and the discharge of firearms within 150 yards of existing property lines, inhabited structures and any roads, to limit public safety and noise concerns.

Other proposed stipulations in the proposal can be viewed on the county’s Planning Department webpage at https://lincolncountymt.us/planning-homepage/. Click on the tab, “Current projects in review” and select “Zoning District Proposals.”