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Guardrails on Growth in Paradise

As land-use conflicts near tipping point, Park County Commissioners vote to update Growth Policy

Residents in Livingston, Montana, and the surrounding locales in Park County have raised concerns over explosive growth in the area, and the county's commissioners voted last week to update the county's official growth policy. Photo courtesy Livingston Chamber of Commerce
Residents in Livingston, Montana, and the surrounding locales in Park County have raised concerns over explosive growth in the area, and the county's commissioners voted last week to update the county's official growth policy. Photo courtesy Livingston Chamber of Commerce
by David Tucker

From Wall Street to Hollywood, the Treasure State is on everybody’s mind. Nowhere is that more apparent than the southwestern portion of Montana, where, in an effort to better manage the change, Park County commissioners recently voted to update the Park County Growth Policy in hopes of retaining the characteristics that have defined this landscape for generations.

In front of a standing-room only crowd at their December 12 meeting, the three-person commission motioned to approve the Planning Department’s update recommendation, kicking off a multi-year process of gathering public input, analyzing the most recent demographic data, and identifying the key issues Park County faces over the next decade.

“The Growth Policy is a people’s document,” said commissioner Bryan Wells. “This is a public opportunity to have a clear voice in shaping county decisions.”

According to Montana Code, a county’s growth policy must be reviewed every five years, and in 2015, after delays related to the Gardiner Gateway Project, the Park County Planning and Development Board initiated that process in an effort to update the 2008 policy. Starting in the spring of 2016, Park County residents identified five key issues they felt the policy should resolve: intergovernmental coordination, water availability and quality, infrastructure, housing, and growth and development.

“Generally speaking, people were really concerned with conflicting land uses, and that sentiment was provided through public comment,” Mike Inman, Park County’s planning director, told Mountain Journal. “If you think back, that’s when we’d had the gold mine, the class-3 monofill tire processing facility out by Mill Creek, the chicken-processing plant in Wilsall, wind energy projects, asphalt plants, gravel pits. We had all these projects that were really freaking people out, so we received a lot of comment and the comment was really requesting that Park County be more active in trying to address these land-use conflicts. That’s an example of how this growth policy could be used to mitigate [conflicts].” The revised policy became effective on May 1, 2017.
The glamping company Under Canvas opened a glampground along the banks of the Yellowstone River earlier this year, raising the ire of some Park County residents. A 2022 poll conducted by Friends of Park County showed “Loss of community character” was a serious concern expressed by 95 percent of respondents. Photo by Chris Boyer
The glamping company Under Canvas opened a glampground along the banks of the Yellowstone River earlier this year, raising the ire of some Park County residents. A 2022 poll conducted by Friends of Park County showed “Loss of community character” was a serious concern expressed by 95 percent of respondents. Photo by Chris Boyer
In the spring of 2021, the commission agreed to a comprehensive policy update, pending completion of the state legislative session. Commission vacancies further delayed that update for over a year. Now, to update or not to update is back on the agenda.

While all public comments at the December 12 meeting were in favor of having a Park County growth policy, support was by no means uniform. Several commenters preferred to amend the existing policy, a shorter and cheaper process. “What [Inman] just outlined is calling essentially for a new growth plan at horrendous cost,” Park County resident David Diloreto said. “It occurs to me that that’s an expense that’s really just not doable in light of everything else that’s badly and sorely needed around here.”

A new policy could run north of $100,000, but commissioner Clint Tinsley flagged much higher costs associated with not having a policy in place. “The federal highways project out Shields River Road, 15 miles of road, brand-new highway from the federal highway folks, almost $20 million … without a growth policy, we wouldn’t be able to get that kind of grant,” Tinsley explained.
“Corporate America has a bullseye on us. These impacts spill out ... and this growth is going to continue in surprising ways, starting in the Shields [Valley]. It’s gonna get busy up there too. We need to have a full toolbox and a mechanism for local people to have their voices heard. – Scott McMillion, resident, Livingston, Montana
Kristen Galbraith, Park County’s director of grants and special projects, reiterated the importance of a growth policy for other funding needs. “Park County receives a significant amount grant funding to help with projects,” Galbraith said, “and I would guestimate that about 20 percent of those grants that I’ve received for the county in the last 15 years—about $10 million—would not have been funded had I not been able to provide relevant portions of a growth policy because our priorities have to match the priorities of the funders, and [the growth policy] is one of my major mechanisms to prove that.”

Other commenters were wary of the influence outside consultants could have on a process many felt should be developed locally. “I think we need to look at what we have on the books, do some rewriting of it, do some amendments of it, and then go forward with it,” Park County resident Lana Sheen said in her comments, “with public, residential landowners being part of that plan and writing that policy. I feel that we don’t need outside interests dictating what my land is going to be used for.”
“The federal highways project out Shields River Road [costs] almost $20 million … without a growth policy, we wouldn’t be able to get that kind of grant.” – Clint Tinsley, commissioner, Park County
Longtime Livingston resident Scott McMillion was also wary of outside economic interests. “Corporate America has a bullseye on us,” McMillion said, referencing a
Signs such as this have popped up in Paradise Valley, indicating an anti-zoning campaign among some Park County residents. Yet many have voiced concerns over sprawl in the area, and polls show most are worried about rapid growth.
Signs such as this have popped up in Paradise Valley, indicating an anti-zoning campaign among some Park County residents. Yet many have voiced concerns over sprawl in the area, and polls show most are worried about rapid growth.
new glamping development chain with a Paradise Valley location. “These impacts spill out, and over and over in various ways. This growth is going to continue in surprising ways, starting in the Shields [Valley]. It’s gonna get busy up there too. We need to have a full toolbox and a mechanism for local people to have their voices heard. A new growth policy would be my preference.”

Fred Paoli, who has lived with his wife for nearly 40 years in Paradise Valley, just upstream from the new glampground, commented that he’s in favor of a new growth policy. “Park County has really grown in the last 35 years,” Paoli said, “and the old policy is outdated and too verbose. A lot of us people that aren’t familiar with all the ins and outs … just can’t understand it when we read it. [Paradise Valley] has had a lot of problems lately. We need something that will guide sensible and positive growth in Park County.”

After nearly two hours of commenting, taking the time to hear from every person who wanted to speak, commissioners agreed that now is the time to start the process of updating Park County’s growth policy. “It’ll be a long process that will give every citizen that wants to a chance to be heard and considered in decision making in Park County,” commissioner Wells said.

Editor’s Note: As mentioned by the commissioners and planning department, public input will be at the core of the policy revision process. You can share your comments directly with county commissioners here.
 
Park County’s Growth Policy is an evolving story that MoJo is covering in a multipart series. Stay up-to-date by subscribing to our newsletter, following us on social media and visiting mountainjournal.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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