Buffer scuffle 

A proposed streamside setback bill is again before the Montana Legislature, promising to bring to a boil the classic debate between conservation and private property rights.

The Big Sky Rivers Act, introduced by Michelle Reinhart, D-Missoula, and scheduled for a Feb. 19 hearing, would establish 250-foot management areas prohibiting development along the banks of Montana’s “Big 10” rivers—the Clark Fork, Blackfoot, Bitterroot, Flathead, Madison, Gallatin, Jefferson, Smith and stretches of the Missouri and Yellowstone.

“We felt like these ‘Big 10’ rivers are some of the most threatened, some of our most treasured, and also have a lot of jurisdictional issues, so it makes sense for a statewide approach,” says Brianna Randall, water policy director for the Clark Fork Coalition.

But such a measure would result in the loss of more than 1,000 miles an acre wide of developable land, according to Dustin Stewart, executive director of the Montana Building Industry Association. He puts the lost value at $220 million for local landowners.

“We don’t believe that a state standard is necessary or workable,” Stewart says. “Whether you’re talking about the Missouri River or the Bitterroot River, there are different characteristics and different cultures whether you’re in Great Falls or whether you’re in Hamilton, and the decision should be made by the local governing body with input from their citizens.”

Paul Wilson, owner of Victor-based Tamarack Construction, disagrees with any setback on principal, but says a 100-foot buffer would be more palatable.

“Frankly, I see this mostly as an environmentalist-type push to control property, and that’s not right,” Wilson says. “If they want to control the property, buy it. If they don’t have the money to buy it, don’t try to tell landowners what they can or can’t do with their property.”

Opponents of the bill cite the need for local control, but proponents point out that it’s built in, allowing local jurisdictions to adjust to local conditions—even if that means tweaking the size of the setback.

“The Montana Legislature needs to balance constitutional rights of private property and the right to a clean and healthful environment, while providing for local control,” Reinhart says. “HB 455 seeks to strike that balance.”
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