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County officials say density rule revision still a goal

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LAKE COUNTY – County commissioners say they remain committed to revising the county’s density regulations, though the process has been bogged down for the past three or four months because of lack of response from another organization with more knowledge about the legality of the issue. 

Commissioner Gale Decker told a group of citizens in March 2014 that commissioners wanted to have a revision of the density regulations completed by the end of the year. Decker said revision of the rules was a top priority for commissioners after an hours–long hearing where citizens gave horror story after horror story about how the rules were cumbersome, infringed on personal property rights, and hindered development. 

The density regulations were put into place in 2005. They were supposed to be reviewed in 2006, and every five years after that. No review has taken place to date. 

The density map split Lake County into units of 40 acres, 20 acres, 10 acres, 5 acres, 2 acres, 2.5 acres and 1.5 acres based on population density. The more dense the population, the smaller a unit can be. Property cannot be broken off and sold in parcels less than the amount of the density unit they are zoned for. The purpose of the map was to keep development in already populated areas and prevent clusters of settlement from popping up in remote places where it is difficult for the county to provide services like fire protection.

The commissioners have sought advice from the Montana Association of Counties to see if the density plan is legitimate and legal. 

“We had one MACO lawyer tell the county it was illegal once,” Decker said. “She said we were zoning the whole county in one fell swoop and that was illegal to do and the commissioners couldn’t do it. We kind of feel like that has got to be the starting point. If that is determined to be the starting point there’s no point to overhaul it and trying to make certain parts work if the whole thing is invalid.” 

Decker said the county has contacted the association three or four times in the past six months, but has had little feedback. If the association says the document is legal, the commissioners intend to revise it so it isn’t so cumbersome. 

“We’re kind of in a stalemate, seeing where we go,” Decker said. “Right now the lynchpin is kind of with MACO, seeing if we need to move forward with it. There will be public meetings as this process unfolds and multiple opportunities for public comment. We’re committed to reviewing it, and taking a look at it. We’re not going to let it drop.” 

County Planner LaDana Hintz said that her department has been working in the meantime to make interaction with the density rules much more pleasant. She said many of the people who voiced frustration with the rules in March 2014 had had a bad experience with customer service, which only compounded the issue. 

“Before when they came through the door, they weren’t getting the help they were needing,” Hintz said. “Now when they come in we are good about working on their projects, listening, and those kinds of things.” 

Hintz said her staff has ideas about how to revise the density regulations; she also said they can be a good tool in county planning. 

“The reason why Lake County implemented it was to deal with the growth that was going on and make consistency decisions when developing subdivisions,” Hintz said. “The whole point was to try to regulate growth where the infrastructure exists, next to your cities and towns, or where they have public water and sewer. One thing that we’re seeing is that those places don’t even have the facilities to handle the growth.” 

Hintz gave an example of the City of Polson, where density zoning makes it easier for people to develop small tracts of land, but town officials have struggled to find funding for mandatory upgrades to the city’s water system. 

But letting development occur in sparsely populated areas also has drawbacks. 

“You don’t want people living way out in the middle of nowhere, your police and ambulance maybe can’t get to them,” Hintz said. “People don’t think about that when they move out into the middle of nowhere.” 

Hintz said her office is working with the county attorney’s office in addition to the Montana Association of Counties about how to possibly revise the rules. 

“We know there are a lot of issues,” Hintz said. “I think the starting point is can we work with the regulations we have right now and fix them.” 

Officials say since the March 2014 meeting about the regulations there have been few people who have submitted comments on the matter. Comments and input can be sent to

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