Frustrated residents of Lolo and Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood learned some hard lessons last month when unpopular development projects moved forward, despite vigorous public opposition. The Missoula County Commissioners refused to block construction of an objectionable gravel pit on U.S. Highway 93, and the Missoula City Council approved an equally controversial subdivision on Duncan Drive. When it comes to regulating land use, zoning means everything, and without it almost anything can happen.
“In both those scenarios it came down to the fact that the area was unzoned. Growth policies and community plans can’t be used to deny developments. That’s the law,” explains Roger Millar, director of the Missoula County Office of Planning and Grants (OPG).
In Ravalli County, government officials have worked for the last year toward countywide zoning in an effort to avoid such disappointing outcomes in the future. But Missoula County officials say there’s no point in even bothering to pursue a similar plan because a single landowner, Plum Creek Timber Company, holds most of the cards.
“It’s been said that Missoula city isn’t a company city, but Missoula County is a company county,” says Pat O’Herren, director of Rural Initiatives, a county office that works on long term planning.
O’Herren says Plum Creek owns roughly 54 percent of all the private land in Missoula County, most of which remains unmarked by signage, fences, or development, meaning that much of it is undistinguishable from public lands the company’s acreage often borders.
“It’s fair to say that most people recreate on land owned by Plum Creek. They hike or take their snowmobiles and four wheelers out there, and don’t even know they’re not on public land. They just own that much land here,” O’Herren says.
Control of such huge amounts of Big Sky Country confers perks on Plum Creek courtesy of state law. OPG’s Millar says that under current statutes, private landowners such as Plum Creek can protest just about any attempt by a county to implement zoning. And once they protest, county governments have little power to control the outcome.
The law gives protest rights to any single landowner holding more than 50 percent of the land under consideration for zoning, or a collection of property holders comprising 40 percent of the owners affected. If an owner, or a collection of owners, invokes the protest right, the zoning discussion must be tabled for a year. And by simply renewing the protest, owners can theoretically block zoning forever.
A spokesperson for Plum Creek, Kathy Budinick, says Plum Creek has never invoked its protest right, instead choosing to work proactively with local governments to find workable compromises when zoning issues come up.
Just laying the groundwork to zone an area can take months or even years, Millar says, and when all of that effort can be undone with a single protest, there’s an understandable apprehensiveness on the part of local government. That puts the ball in Plum Creek’s court.
Consequently, County officials say their hands are tied. They must either go along with Plum Creek’s plans for the land it owns, or else not bother with zoning at all. “If there is one entity that will decide the fate of Missoula County, it’s Plum Creek,” O’Herren says.
To help them work around the difficulties, County officials created nine distinct areas to zone individually. Plum Creek owns over 50 percent of the land in six of them. The Seeley Lake planning area, where Plum Creek owns 79 percent of the land, topped the priority list because the Seeley Lake Community Council already had a plan in the making, O’Herren says.
The office of Rural Initiatives and the Seeley Lake Community Council initiated talks with Plum Creek last April, says Community Council Chair Jonathan Haufler.
“Obviously with them owning 79 percent of the land here, it’s worthwhile and necessary to have them along with the plan,” Haufler says. “The whole discussion was about trying to balance what the community wanted with the land use plan and what Plum Creek wanted.”
In the most recent draft of the Seeley Lake Regional Plan, completed in December, Plum Creek’s property would be zoned for one residence per every 160 acres, and of course, timber cutting would remain a permissible activity. Budinick says the proposed zoning fits the company’s overall goals for its extensive Montana holdings.
“We sell some of our land. We have residential projects on some of our land,” Budinick explains. But she says the majority of Plum Creek’s projects in Montana will focus on timber and conservation usage, with real estate comprising only a small portion of the company’s deals.
After months of sitting at the table with Plum Creek, O’Herren says he thinks everyone involved drafted a fair plan. The Seeley Lake Community Council will take public comment on the proposal at a Jan. 7 meeting. O’Herren expects Plum Creek to support the plan, but makes no assumptions.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” he says.
If Seeley Lake residents okay the proposal, O’Herren says the Seeley Lake Regional Plan, along with its corresponding zoning regulations, will be presented to the Missoula County Commissioners for approval.
But if Plum Creek doesn’t like what they hear, O’Herren says the County will be back at square one.
The Seeley Lake Community Council will discuss the Seeley Lake Regional Plan on Mon., Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. in the Community Hall (North of town on Highway 83).