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As Park County Booms, Locals Look to Retain Way of Life

New campaign launched in support of retaining growth policy in face of repeal effort

Park County residents on March 5 show support for the Vote No Ref 1 campaign, a citizen-led effort to defeat Referendum 1 on the June 4 ballot. Ref 1 would repeal Park County's current growth policy, allowing for runaway development and outside influence, according to campaign organizers. Photo by David Tucker
Park County residents on March 5 show support for the Vote No Ref 1 campaign, a citizen-led effort to defeat Referendum 1 on the June 4 ballot. Ref 1 would repeal Park County's current growth policy, allowing for runaway development and outside influence, according to campaign organizers. Photo by David Tucker
by David Tucker

In southwest Montana, paradise has been found. And for more and more people, it looks a lot like Park County. As is so often the case, this outside interest is leading to rapid change, but a citizen-led initiative is hoping to keep guardrails around runaway development.

At a March 5 launch event in Livingston, "Vote No Ref 1" organizers announced their opposition to Referendum 1, a June 4 ballot initiative that would repeal the county’s growth policy. Alongside Shields Valley rancher Jen Vermillion and Emigrant fly-shop manager Rick Wollum, Colin Davis, the former owner of Chico Hot Springs, made his case.

“What is the growth policy?” Davis asked the crowd of about 20. “It’s a tool that allows us to plan and anticipate. It’s a guideline for the future. Referendum 1 is a tool designed to abolish our growth policy. It’s that simple.”

The referenced guidelines were adopted in 2017, and county commissioners agreed to an update on December 12, 2023. “What’s at stake is our water, wildlife, the way we live and the way we treat the land,” Davis added. “We talk about anticipating growth. The growth is here, and it’s escalating.”

According to a recent Headwaters Economics study, Davis is right. Between 2000 and 2021, 37,600 acres of Park County were converted to housing, representing 2,782 new homes.
Paradise Valley: Sprawling residential development transformed 37,600 acres of Park County from 2000 to 2021, with 2,782 new homes being built. This model of housing development fragments wildlife habitat, consumes precious water resources and strains local services. June 7, 2021. Photo by Johnathan Hettinger
Paradise Valley: Sprawling residential development transformed 37,600 acres of Park County from 2000 to 2021, with 2,782 new homes being built. This model of housing development fragments wildlife habitat, consumes precious water resources and strains local services. June 7, 2021. Photo by Johnathan Hettinger
As a rancher, this trend is particularly concerning to Vermillion. “We all recognize how special Park County is,” she said, “but as I talk with my neighbors, there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding the uncertainty about what kind of growth is headed our way and how it’s going to impact our livelihoods.”

Vermillion and her neighbors aren’t alone in their concern. The most recent We Will Park County survey found that 94 percent of county residents agree that conservation is critical. “Increased traffic and more demands on our limited water resources are already impacting how many of us operate,” Vermillion said. “We need the growth policy.”

Referendum 1 made it onto the June 4 ballot after a separate citizen effort gathered sufficient petition signatures to include it, though Vote No Ref 1 organizers allege that the repeal proponents’ campaign was confusing to residents.

“I worry that many of my neighbors were misled,” Vermillion said. “They were led to believe that [the growth policy] threatens their property rights and that it leads directly to zoning and regulation. They were not told how the growth policy can help protect ag land, can help protect open space, and help protect the quantity and quality of water.”

While growth policies do make zoning possible, they do not create any new zoning and are non-regulatory in nature. Ravalli County is the only county in Montana to repeal its growth policy.
"Vote No Ref 1" campaign committee members make their case in front of the City/County Complex building in Livingston. Organizers hope to educate Park County residents about the benefits of their growth policy, which Referendum 1 hopes to repeal in the June 4 vote. Photo by David Tucker
"Vote No Ref 1" campaign committee members make their case in front of the City/County Complex building in Livingston. Organizers hope to educate Park County residents about the benefits of their growth policy, which Referendum 1 hopes to repeal in the June 4 vote. Photo by David Tucker

Park County’s precious natural amenities were also on fly-shop manager Wollum’s mind. “We’re looking at where we get our water from right here—we’re standing on it,” he said, referring to the snow-covered sidewalk. “It’s all from snowpack, and it can’t support thousands and thousands of people here.”

As an angler, Wollum’s perspective is tightly tied to the Yellowstone River and the livelihoods it supports. “The tourism economy in Park County is a $500 million economy, and the fly-fishing industry contributes $70 million annually. That’s a huge number, and I don’t think people are wanting to come here to see housing developments. We want to have a voice to control that to keep our environment wild.”

If Referendum 1 passes, county officials will still pursue a new growth policy. However, that process can take several years and there is no guarantee that the proposal will be adopted. In the meantime, Park County’s population is expected to climb to over 18,000 by 2030, up from 16,606 in 2019, according to the Montana Department of Commerce.
The growth policy can help protect ag land, can help protect open space, and help protect the quantity and quality of water.”  – Jen Vermillion, rancher, Shields Valley
Without a growth policy, funding for services such as law enforcement, road maintenance and waste management would be in question. According to Kristen Galbraith, Park County’s grants and special projects director, the county has received more than $10 million in the last 15 years that would not have been available without a growth policy.

“The defining question is ‘Do we want local control over our lives and our way of life?’” Davis asked the crowd as organizers wrapped up their comments. “Are we going to close our eyes and turn a blind eye to it, or are we going to protect and guide where we live? Vote no.”

To learn more about Referendum 1 and the Vote No campaign, visit noref1.org.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

David Tucker
About David Tucker

David Tucker is a freelance journalist covering conservation, recreation and the environment in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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