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In Montana, Four Different Polls Say Citizens Seriously Unhappy About Sprawl
July 5, 2023
In Montana, Four Different Polls Say Citizens Seriously Unhappy About Sprawl
North of Yellowstone, no-zoning signs fly like protest flags but residents of beautiful Park County are deeply concerned lack of planning is causing the loss of places they love
A portrayal of the Yellowstone River wending through Paradise Valley and Park County, Montana by the great contemporary painter Robert Spanning. Imagine this scene if the landscape was coated in sprawl. Some say you can't stop change or "progress," but does it also apply to developers who have no respect for a priceless view like this? To see more of Spanning's work, go to robertspannring.com
By Todd Wilkinson
Is there any rural place in America that, amid intense development pressure, has managed to hold onto its special character in the absence of foresighted zoning?
Certainly, it could be argued, none with the pastoral grandeur of Paradise Valley and Park County, Montana—scenic historic gateway to the front doorstep of this country’s first national park. Besides that, Park County has more biological diversity, in the form of native large mammals, than 99 percent of the other counties in the Lower 48. The roster ranges from wild, free-ranging elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, moose, two species of deer and bison to grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, and Canada lynx.
People come from around the world, lured to experience its sense of wildness.
Like many breathtaking mountain dales in the West, Paradise Valley, the county's centerpiece, is bracing against more than external pressures which stand to turn it into a doppelganger of sprawl, blight and ticky-tack commercialization—the kind that has proliferated everywhere else, where the free market has been unleashed to run wild.
Resistance to the very strategies necessary to prevent that from happening here emanate from within the county. Drive in almost any direction and you’re bound to encounter signs of defiance aimed at promotors of land use regulation. One sign reads, “No County Zoning. Instead-Instead Zone County Authorities.”
What exactly are the landowners protesting? The patented answer is a perceived infringement of private property rights by government, limiting their ability to do almost anything they want with their parcels of ground.
Ironic is that many of these properties are flanked by examples, or near misses, of what they claim they don’t want Park County to become. There’s the site of a former notorious junkyard on private ground found along the road leading to Chico Hot Springs Resort. For decades, many longtime residents complained of it being a massive eyesore unbecoming of their valley and which sprang to life because there were not regulations to stop it.
Some no-zoning signs are not far away from a stretch of the Yellowstone River where, in the 1970s, a controversial dam was proposed that would have submerged private ranches beneath a reservoir. That was stopped. Today, many signs are within view of public land where citizens waged a recent battle to stop a Canadian company from building a gold mine in the Absarokas. That was stopped, too, thanks to intervention from both Republican and Democrat members of Montana's Congressional Delegation.
Do the anti-zoning protestors, who tout their multi-generation heritage of land ownership and who rue profound changes underway, believe that an almost-anything-goes approach to permitting development on private land does justice to this county—whose beauty causes them to choke up at public meetings when thinking about losing their “way of life?”
Maybe a better inquiry is asking whether the vocal opponents of countywide zoning have views widely shared by the majority of Park County citizens?
The issue has never been put to a direct vote but there are recently-gleaned reflections of public opinion. Surprisingly perhaps, they blur, rather than clarify, perceived lines of division that normally run along the boundaries of politics, culture, socio-economic factors and are often flavored by how long a person or family has lived in the area. What these impressions reveal is that many people, here and elsewhere in the state, feel as if the things they savor about Montana are slipping away fast. Many believe something different must be done in order to protect the best that remains.
It's a dilemma not solely pertinent to Park County but to many mountain valleys up and down the Rocky Mountain West—some today lamenting in retrospect that more was not done to safeguard land and ecology that figured at the center of their community identity. Just as some citizens in Park County, Montana insist now, residents in other high-growth counties convinced themselves their home ground would never be transformed. Yet it was.
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In Montana, four different recent polls/surveys suggest there’s widespread angst brewing, with a sizable percentage of people who do not count the Covid-related development boom—which is still ongoing— to be a blessing. They are questioning the rationale that prosperity must come at high cost to community values and other things they revere far more than money.
A torrent of growth and land development inundating the western third of Montana, stretching from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on the south northward hundreds of miles to the US border with Canada, has generated huge concerns. Do these feelings of unsettledness represent a potential divide emerging between the desires of citizens struggling to keep the souls of their communities intact and how lawmakers they’re electing to state legislatures and local offices are voting?
Recent polls and surveys, including three from Park County, Montana, indicate Montanans are deeply worried about how sprawl is negatively impacting the places they cherish. And all of this is happening in the wake of several bills, passed by the 2023 Montana legislature with its Republican supermajority and signed into law by Governor Greg Gianforte, that could, in fact, dramatically accelerate growth even more.
One of the boldest illustrations of anti-regulation posturing in the Gianforte Administration was displayed last summer when Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a member of the state land board, voted to reject new private land acquisitions proposed by the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks to protect wildlife habitat from development pressure. The acquisitions had been widely supported by hunters who see key habitat for big game species disappearing in the sea of sprawl.
“When I hear over and over again the potential of subdivision being a bad thing, some big evil thing, I don’t see it that way at all,” Knudsen said, apparently not considering how ranchers, Montanans who desire the views, as well as elk, deer, pronghorn, moose and other species might see it. “We’ve got a housing crunch in Montana. We’ve got a lot of people moving here, people that need places to live. I don’t think people are moving here from California, from Oregon, from Washington to live in high-rise apartments. I think they’d like to have a piece of Montana and a little bit of acreage and a house.”
“When I hear over and over again the potential of subdivision being a bad thing, some big evil thing, I don’t see it that way at all. We’ve got a housing crunch in Montana. We’ve got a lot of people moving here, people that need places to live. I don’t think people are moving here from California, from Oregon, from Washington to live in high-rise apartments. I think they’d like to have a piece of Montana and a little bit of acreage and a house.” —Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen
Normally, Mr. Knudsen and other conservatives would lambaste the perceived invasion of Montana by newcomers pouring in from Liberal West Coast states.
Is Knudsen’s stated desire to supply them with their own pieces of pastoral and wild Montana, at the expense of the state’s natural splendor, widely embraced? Should Montana as Montanans know it be given away, citizens are wondering, or should those wishing to exploit its most important aspects be limited with what they aspire to take or profit from?
Many believe Knudsen needs to spend more time conversing with inhabitants of the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman, Paradise and Shields valleys in Park County, the Madison Valley in Madison County and other vales like the Bitterroot and Flathead where locals are seeing ag lands, open space, wildlife habitat and hunting and fishing opportunities being gobbled up by leapfrog development?
Bills, backed by the real estate, building and trade industries, were moved through the legislature in Helena this year under the argument they would streamline the building permitting process. In at least one case, legislation also would limit the ability of citizens to rigorously scrutinize multi-phase developments that begin small but exact huge negative footprints over time. Other laws, combined with weak county planning and zoning, could result in more small subdivisions, controversial gravel pits, glampgrounds and strip developments gaining approval, say those who are keeping close tabs on the net effect of the laws.
The state legislature and Gianforte Administration have also hardened positions that prevent local citizens from going to the polls and voting on binding ballot initiatives that would give municipalities and counties struggling with growth issues the ability to tax millions of tourists who use services and infrastructure but do not presently pay to build or maintain them.
Lawmakers also have beaten back efforts to establish a real-estate transfer tax that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars over time, with money that could provide relief for weary property taxpayers, pay for rising infrastructure costs, and, equally as important, create monetary incentives/rewards for ranchers and farmers to not carve up their land.
A useful reference on the value of a real estate transfer tax, which really functions as a consumption tax, can be found just to the south of Montana. According to a news article in the Jackson Hole News & Guide about the failure of a real estate transfer tax to gain traction in Wyoming in 2022, Jackson Hole alone had $6.2 billion in real estate sales in the three years of 2019, 2020 and 2021. A one-half of one percent tax on those sales would have yielded $31 million, which could have paid for conservation easements and affordable housing.
In parallel, billions of dollars in real estate value have exchanged hands between Big Sky, Gallatin and Park counties. A transfer tax similarly would have generated tens of millions that could have been spent rewarding farmers and ranchers who protect their lands through conservation easements or via incentivized zoning. The Montana state legislature, mostly because of predominant “anti-tax” ideology, refuses to consider revenue generating mechanisms to help towns and counties struggling with growth. To add insult to injury, critics say, state law requires that a percentage of revenue generated through resort and local option taxes be spent on tourism promotion which is only exacerbating development pressure and the shortage of affordable housing.
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Four recent polls and surveys, combined with a few others, suggest that the legislature in Helena is out of step with fears Montanans have about beloved corners of their state being lost to real estate speculation, some driven by out of state investors taking advantage of weak planning and zoning. The polls, which together are based on engaging thousands of citizens, were commissioned by Friends of Park County, the Park County Environmental Council, the Park County Community Foundation as part of its “We Will” campaign, and by the University of Montana in Missoula.
The first three represent a novel trifecta of gauging the opinions of voters in a way that cuts across ideological, age, socio-economic and lines pertaining to whether people live in town or out in the country. Between all four polls, general themes emerge and echo as a common thread. In Park County, the various polls reached citizens living in a county which extends from the foothills of the Crazy and Bangtail mountains southward to Livingston, along the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley and ending just inside the northern boundary of Yellowstone Park.
Firms FM3 Research & Associates and New Bridge Strategy were involved jointly or separately with three of those polls. David Metz, partner and president at FM3, shared a few key extrapolations that flowed across the local polling and the broader. “The most striking correlation is the concern about growth, and the perception that it is having a negative impact on Montanans’ quality of life. Both statewide and in Park County, three in five voters say that growth and development is moving too quickly—and in Park County a similar proportion say their quality of life has gotten worse in the last few years,” Metz said. “There are few parts of the country where we see rapid growth and development standing out as such a central concern right now.”
When asked if he and colleagues saw anything unusual in the citizen feedback, he added, “It’s a related observation, I’m surprised by the degree to which growth-related concerns in Park County far exceed concern about more traditionally-prominent issues, like wildfire or government waste and inefficiency. It’s a testament to the intensity of concern about the impacts of growth that these highly-localized issues outweigh issues that are more dominant in other western communities.”
"I’m surprised by the degree to which growth-related concerns in Park County far exceed concern about more traditionally-prominent issues, like wildfire or government waste and inefficiency. It’s a testament to the intensity of concern about the impacts of growth that these highly-localized issues outweigh issues that are more dominant in other western communities.” —David Metz, partner and president of the polling firm FM3 & Associates
Without exception, the polls confirmed that Montanans treasure wildlife, hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities, open space, the presence of farmers, ranchers and local families having an opportunity to remain in their communities. They are deeply concerned about how development is negatively impacting nature and the sense of belonging that knits them together. Working class people are having a difficult time finding affordable homes to buy and places to rent, a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by a lot more people with means moving in, especially during the Covid flight from urban areas.
But unlike what Attorney General Austin Knudsen says, citizens are not willing to blindly embrace growth for growth’s sake if it means erasing the natural essence of Montana they share. Montanans realize that tougher restrictions must be imposed to protect the Montana way of life and that, as the University of Montana poll indicates, a majority of Montanans believe that many of the changes happening over the last half decade have left the state worse off, not a better place to live.
Park County, Montana is, in many ways, a high-profile test case being closely watched by others in the Northern Rockies because differing facets of a county being overtaken by rapid development are now converging. There’s the spillover effect from Bozeman/Gallatin County, which is one of the fastest-growing small urban areas in America. There’s the popularity of the fictional TV show Yellowstone which has heightened the allure of Paradise Valley. There’s the growth of industrial tourism and recreation given its proximity to Yellowstone Park, the Yellowstone River and other encircling federal public lands. There are local farmers and ranchers who are aging out and their children’s heirs don’t want to remain in agriculture. And there’s a pushback being waged by some property owners against planning and zoning that many believe is essential to protecting the country’s natural attributes. On top of it, there are the effects of Covid that unleashed a property buying frenzy among urbanites in other states who came seeking seclusion.
The unblemished view that residents of Livingston, Montana enjoy of the Absaroka Mountains, across a sweep of open space between town and the mountains, is not only breathtaking but important for wildlife. Below is an illustration of what could happen to that community-defining visual jewel if city/county planning efforts are weakened. Illustration courtesy Friends of Park County
Early in June, a Park County resident, Ann Hallowell drafted petitions that, if successful, would repeal the 2017 county growth policy and make it much harder for zoning to occur. At the present time, Livingston has a growth strategy that has won favorable reviews but it is not being coordinated with Park County. The growth policy is considered to be a thoughtful roadmap for identifying and pondering how to deal with challenges.Dismantling it, many fear, would result in more chaos and dissension.
Hallowell’s petition would put any proposed zoning regulations promulgated by county commissions before voters. As the recent polling of registered voters and residents in Park County indicates, citizens are frustrated that existing planning policies are ill-equipped to deal with mounting growth issues.
Michelle Uberuaga, executive director of Park County Environmental Council, says her organization’s poll “identified that we have issues, the biggest is our housing crisis. People are struggling, and unsure whether their kids will be able to live here," she noted. "It’s going to take a lot of work to protect what we love, including the people, the lands, the river, and the wildlife in our community.”
An hour’s drive south from Livingston in bustling Gardiner, Montana on the front doorstep of Yellowstone Park, dropping enrollment in local schools is indicative of how rising costs of living are driving out families. While some in the construction industry say the answer is adding a lot more housing, a new subdivision sited in the wrong place could disrupt wildlife migration corridors for animals moving seasonally in and out of America’s oldest national park. Meanwhile, in Livingston, the county seat and largest community in Park County, is facing similar dilemmas involving how to grow in ways that do not harm the ecological integrity of the Yellowstone River and preserve the signature viewshed that extends from Main Street to the Absaroka Mountains.
“There is a lot of critical work that needs to be done on planning in Park County and PCEC has been doing this important work for years. We know that people in Park County deeply value the wild in their backyard,” Uberuaga, who is also field consultant for a group, Moms Clean Air Force, said. “Our poll reinforced what we already knew—people love public lands, the river and the wildlife that make this place special. We are committed to ensuring that Park County continues to be a special place where people and wildlife can thrive. That’s not an easy task. It takes a lot of people working together, showing up, supporting good government and using our voices to ensure that growth doesn’t just happen— it happens in a thoughtful manner with a shared vision.”
So far, however, after decades of noble attempts to achieve the latter, some in Park County treat "zoning" as a taboo word not to be uttered, afraid it will rile resistance, which, in fact, already exists and includes dis- and misinformation that doesn't hold up when subjected to scrutiny. See graphic at the end of this story shows how one poll and focus group revealed citizens have only a vague sense of what zoning means.
The Park County Community Foundation poll, meanwhile, is an extension of its “We Will Park County” initiative that in 2022 produced a State of Park County report unveiled at a public informational event attended by hundreds of people at the Livingston Depot Center. A third poll, commissioned by Friends of Park County, also set out to gain a read on where the sympathies of residents lie. In addition, Friends of Park County produced an informative video presentation that sets the results of all four polls within the context of existing challenges facing the county. Further, Friends produced a digest of what happened with planning-related bills in the 2023 state legislature.
According to a separate new report from Sprawl USA titled “From Sea to Sprawling Sea: Quantifying the Loss of Open Space in America,” Gallatin County over a 15-year span, pre-Covid, lost 21.3 square miles of open space—100 percent of which was attributed to population growth and corresponding expansion of human footprint. In Park County during the same period, about 6.6 miles of open lands were lost, 12 percent of it attributed to population increase. However, the analysis was made prior to the unprecedented wave of newcomers who came to Greater Yellowstone.
While citizens who participated in the polls voiced reverence for private property rights, their support came within the context of individual rights not coming at the expense of habitat important for hunting, fishing and keeping ag lands protected so that farmers and ranchers can continue to be important parts of the community.
The average American land footprint inside established urban areas is one-third of an acre when one tallies up everything that goes into sustaining the person, but average ecological footprint is 60 times larger, encompassing around 20 acres per person. In environs with high wildlife and pastoral values, impact of human presence registers much larger. A single new subdivision with 1,000 homes is nothing to absorb inside a metro suburb but when such a development springs up in front of a cherished mountain view, or along a river, or covers a ranch or wildlife habitat, it radically alters the landscape and the way the public interacts with it.
Gavin Clark, executive director of the Park County Community Foundation, shared several stats: Since 2002 in Park County, 135,000 acres of ag land have been converted to development and taken out of production, over 1,000 new septic systems have gone in since 2010 and there are over 1,100 new residential addresses in unincorporated parts of the county.
Separate from this, professional planner Randy Carpenter previously told Mountain Journal that there are thousands of lots that have been subdivided and if even a small percentage of them are developed, it would leave landscape fragmentation most county residents would find startling. Plus, he added, many of those lots are in scenic areas and important wildlife habitat areas.
Another insight Carpenter shared is that thenumber of new homes being built in Park County in recent decades far exceeds the increase in permanent residents recorded in the recent US Census. It means vacation and second homes are being constructed, bringing permanent infrastructure impacts and costs of services, even if the owners are only inhabiting them a few months of the year. In other words, the footprint of development is exacting a toll whether people are there or not.
Carpenter says the number of new homes being built in Park County in recent decades far exceeds the increase in permanent residents recorded in the recent US Census. It means vacation and second homes are being constructed, bringing permanent infrastructure impacts and costs of services, even if the owners are only inhabiting them a few months of the year. In other words, the footprint of development is exacting a toll whether people are there or not.
Per Carpenter’s point that US Census figures can be misleading, Dr. Dave Theobald, who for years has examined sprawl as a researcher in the Natural Resource Ecology Lab and Department of Recreation & Tourism at Colorado State University, has noted in several highly cited peer-reviewed journal articles that rural development brings with it insidious effects most people don’t, at first, understand or see until it’s too late.
“Because population data from the Census Bureau are tied to the primary place of residence, they underestimate landscape change due to development associated with vacation and second-homes,” Theobald wrote in one study. “In 2000, nearly one quarter of western counties had a greater than 25% vacancy rate; 11 counties had a greater than 50% vacancy rate. As a result, the ratio of number of people in a county per house varies widely around the mean of 2.2 for the West, so that one quarter of the counties have a people per unit ratio lower than 1.9 and 8 counties have more housing units than people.”
That phenomenon has exploded in many Greater Yellowstone counties in the past 20 years, Carpenter says, noting that people building dream homes in the countryside are exacting disproportionately large negative impacts. Added Theobald in another paper, “The extent of exurban areas in the US is roughly 3 to 11 times the extent of urban areas. Yet, initial ecological research suggests that even at relatively low, exurban densities, declines in species richness, increases in human-adapted species, and modification of critical ecological processes occurs.”
In Park County, Carpenter said that without reforms, made such as incentivizing property owners to consolidate lot lines, Paradise Valley is at imminent risk of seeing the landscape rapidly transformed because weak planning now favors short-sighted development. In recent weeks, Park County residents expressed shock upon seeing aerial photographs of a new glampground going in along the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley. It underwent minimal review, many citizens were unaware of it, and they were alarmed to learn that other stretches of the Yellowstone River could, in the future, be lined by subdivisions or similar commercial “glamorous camping” facilities, marring not only the majesty of the Yellowstone but changing the aesthetic experience for people who float and fish the river.
At top: the appearance of a large campground along the Yellowstone River this year, as captured in this photograph by Christopher Boyer, left many Park County denizens stunned. In the photos just above, an illustration shows what could possibly happen to private land flanking a beloved and world-famous spring creek is the property passes into a developer's hands and is unprotected by either conservation easement or zoning. Cumulatively, incremental development like this can quickly add up, leaving Paradise Valley and Park County negatively transformed forever. Illustration courtesy Friends of Park County
The Park County Community Foundation’s “We Will” campaign was launched a few years ago with the understanding that development issues often are happening faster than the ability of town and county governments to deal with growth in an orderly way.
Clark says that instead of proscribing a precise course forward he and his organization want to provide a baseline of information that reflects what people value, and their fears are, and use it to motivate citizens rally together for better, positive results. The foundation isn’t political and it’s not an activist entity but has positioned itself to be a catalyst for enhancing social engagement as a way of fostering goodwill and not igniting polemical disagreement which has dominated land use discussions in the past.
Clark, however, doesn’t mince words and neither does the 2022 “We Will” State of the County report: “What our survey revealed was just how emotional these topics are becoming,” states the report’s executive summary, penned by Clark and the foundation’s board chair Jeff Welch who lives in Shields Valley. “’We don’t want to become Bozeman’ was a common refrain. ‘Californication” [was another sentiment, as was] ‘Not Jackson.’ Things we’ve heard but lathered in powerful emotions. When asked about the future of Park County, open-ended responses were filled with fear, anger, blame, worry, sadness and despair. It was unsettling—but necessary—to see just how strong these emotions are becoming.”
“’We don’t want to become Bozeman’ was a common refrain. ‘Californication” [was another sentiment, as was] ‘Not Jackson.’ Things we’ve heard but lathered in powerful emotions. When asked about the future of Park County, open-ended responses were filled with fear, anger, blame, worry, sadness and despair. It was unsettling—but necessary—to see just how strong these emotions are becoming.” —Gavin Clark and Jeff Welch with the Park County Community Foundation
What heartens Clark is that passion flares when people care and they are willing to step up and become involved, rather than withdrawing, becoming passive and cynically giving up hope but vital is listening. From Park County Community Foundation poll and report, “69%agree that there is a lack of planning for growth” in Park County and “96% agree that it’simportant to preserve natural resources—water, air, etc.—for future generations.” The report notes, “The beauty of our region has much to do with the quality of our air and water, wildlife, unspoiled views and wide open spaces, many of which are due to our strong agricultural economy. More than any other topic in our survey, residents agree on the value of natural assets…Our landscapes and amenities are also feeling the impacts of growth outside of Park County—whether it’s due to tourism, second home ownership or growing populations in Gallatin County and across Montana.”
As important as re-reminding people of the positive things that forge a shared identify is clearly agreeing upon the things they don’t want to define their hamlet or county, Clark says.
“Everybody agrees we want to be self-determined and be authors of our own future rather than allowing it to just happen to us. In order to do that, we need to be able to come to some sort of agreements,” Clark said. “In our view, the best way to identify common denominators is through value-based conversations centered on what we love about this place, why we choose to live here and raise our families.”
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For its part, Friends of Park County has produced a video that puts the differing poll results in perspective and gives them a backdrop.
Narrated by Kathy Foote, descendent in a fourth-generation Montana ranching family, the video tells a story certain to resonate among people inhabiting rural valleys throughout the Rockies now coping with transformative growth issues. Foote, who grew up on a ranch south of Bozeman, today lives in Park County and serves on the board of Friends. She is dismayed by how growth has been poorly managed in her birthplace of Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley.
“Are most people here happy with the pace and pattern of development?” Foote asks in the new video that features provocative slides. “Is it true that a majority of people who vote in Park County are opposed to any regulations that may be needed to manage development?”
The presence of “no zoning” signs that have sprung up in Park County may give the impression to some that anti-regulation sentiments are ubiquitous and represent the majority of citizen opinion, yet polling results challenge that.
The Friends of Park County poll found that 62 percent of Park County voters believe their quality of life has gotten worse in the last few years and only 11 percent think it has improved, paralleling findings of the University of Montana statewide poll. The latter confirms a lot of anecdotal evidence that Montanans in many western mountain valleys are unhappy about how the construction boom is negatively affecting their way of life.
“Loss of community character” was a serious concern expressed by 95 percent of respondents in the Friends of Park County poll, 90 percent in the Park County Environmental Coalition poll, and by 77 percent or nearly four of every five of those reached in the University of Montana poll.
Foote said she recently drove over Bozeman Pass in route to meet with a tech person who helped her do a voice-over for the Friends of Park County video. “I got lost not one time but three times on three consecutive days as I tried to find my way through sprawl on the west side of Bozeman. I was shocked by what I saw and how fast new subdivisions have sprung up—on what used to be some of the best farmland in the state. People are flocking to Bozeman and it’s the same old story. They swear they love it so much and immediately set out to change it.”
Foote says Livingston and Park County already are dealing with spill-over effects from Bozeman and people moving in trying to monetize the land and scenery every way they can. “The situation is extremely urgent,” she said, noting that the goal of Friends of Park County is to curb unregulated growth and promote zoning that can take a variety of forms.
“When I was a kid growing up in Gallatin County, my dad was a rancher and zoning was a terrible word," Foote says. "But then you look at what residents who lived up Bridger Canyon did with creating their own zoning district, and the same thing with landowners up Springhill and you realize they protected those places from outcomes that would have been a lot worse. We have tools available to us in Park County to help us avoid what’s happened to Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley. No one over here wants that.”
Sprawl in Bozeman and Gallatin County did not happen by accident. It is the result of failed attempts at achieving countywide zoning and subsequent piecemeal decision-making, carried out by elected officials and government planning staffs who had no big picture vision in mind. They operated under the mistaken belief that market forces would somehow deliver Bozeman and Gallatin County to a fate different from the kind of nature-subdued environments that free-market, anti-regulation thinking visited upon Colorado and Utah.
A few years ago, Ann Hallowell penned this letter to the Park County Commission: “We must scrap [attempts to create] countywide ZONING. If individual contiguous neighbors wish to band together for a special situation and create citizen imitated zoning, that is their business and they are welcome to do so. But no top-down, life changing edicts from our commissioners.”
“When I was a kid growing up in Gallatin County, my dad was a rancher and zoning was a terrible word. But then you look at what residents who lived up Bridger Canyon did with creating their own zoning district, and the same thing with landowners up Springhill and you realize they protected those places from outcomes that would have been a lot worse. We have tools available to us in Park County to help us avoid what’s happened to Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley. No one over here wants that.” —Kathy Foote, board member of Friends of Park County
For all the adamance about residents of Park County saying they don’t want to become Bozeman, by rejecting zoning, parts of Paradise Valley are at high risk of resembling Gallatin Gateway and the nearby US Highway 191 corridor. There visual blight and loss of wildlife are the result of a few landowners who, two decades ago, torpedoed citizen-led zoning that would have prevented it from becoming a poster child for bad planning. Now there are battles over a controversial glampground proposed for the banks of the Gallatin River and a gravel pit located in critical habitat for elk, deer and other species.
Here are a few more key takeaways from the Friends of Park County Poll: Some 61 percent of voters think growth and development is happening too fast. Concerns about housing affordability are a top concern in all three polls and two of them pointed to the proliferation of short-term rentals as contributing to the problem. Nine of every ten voters who participated in one poll think it is important to create new homes and apartments that are affordable, so that locals are not priced out of their local community. Drilling down deeper, development of second homes and vacation rentals popping up in open space was a problem identified by 83 percent of registered voters.
Protecting nature scored high in all the polls. Some 96 percent of the 800 people who engaged in the Park County Community Foundation 2022 poll agreed that it’s important to preserve natural resources and that’s in the face of a 25 percent increase in the volume of recreationists using the Yellowstone River since 2021. The Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group is currently undertaking a multi-year-study of river use patterns.
In the Friends of Park County poll, 92 percent of respondents expressed their belief that protecting wildlife and the natural beauty of landscape is a significant desire.
On that note, citizens responding to the University of Montana poll expressed an opinion that runs sharply counter to what Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen stated in voicing support for proliferating subdivisions of rural land to accommodate newcomers seeking the Montana dream.
Some 85 percent of Montana voters consider sprawl sweeping across ranches and open space a serious issue. Those sentiments echo through the three polls of citizens in Park County. As an extrapolation, the polls indicate that citizens value the presence of farmers and ranchers and how their working lands, free of leapfrog development, contribute mightily to community character.
Regarding how development should be guided, the polls reveal areas that ought to be the top priorities of protection. Some 96 percent of respondents in the Park County Community Foundation poll said it’s important to preserve natural resources, such as water and air, for future generations. Similarly, the Friends of Park County research shows that preserving hunting areas and fishing waters from development is desired from 96 percent of Park County voters, with 82 percent of them classifying it as extremely or very important. Some 94 percent believe it is important to protect the Yellowstone River from pollution with that river and other streams factoring high among the reasons residents count Park County as a great place to live.
Miraculously, the Yellowstone River has dodged bullets that would have destroyed it, such as proposed dams, armoring its entire course with riprap, and allowing homes and buildings to invade the fringy flood zones. The character of the Yellowstone and the breathtaking views that cradle it, have been spared thanks to two things: the first is luck; the second is that all landowners flanking its banks haven’t thrown in the towel to unscrupulous developers but most importantly, that citizens continue to fend off threats that have already arrived and will keep coming forever, relentlessly. That’s what happens when you save something exceedingly special. All is never lost until you give up trying to protect it.
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Michael Story could, from afar, come across as a plainspoken facsimile of fictional rancher John Dutton in the TV soap opera Yellowstone. Story has multi-generation roots stretching back to the 1860s when his great-great grandfather Nelson Story drove the first herds of longhorns from Texas to grasslands in Montana. He admits that he isn’t a big fan of Yellowstone and says both it and A River Runs Through It pinned a bull’s eye on Park County in ways that have only accelerated its transformation.
Nelson Story settled in Bozeman but part of the family maintained land in Paradise Valley. His 1866 cattle drive inspired the late Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove. Today, Mike runs Story Cattle Co. and Outfitting on his ranch near Emigrant and guides hunters every autumn into the Gallatin Range. In November 2022, he won a seat on the Park County Commission, defeating incumbent Steve Caldwell who favored a tightening of land use regulations to combat sprawl.
Some of the people who voted for Story are those with “no-zoning signs” on their land and it should surprise no one that Story is opposed to countywide zoning and creating new taxes even if they are aimed at visitors.
Story says he has tangled with, among others, members of Friends of Park County. “They are another group that I believe really has no idea what’s going on here. They ask me, ‘Well, would you like to see us be like Jackson Hole?’ And I say, ‘No, I don’t think Park County ever will.’ But we are doing to have growth no matter what we do. Friends like to say that if we regulate where development can happen it will be better for all of us. But who is us. Who is we. Who gets to tell us what to do?”
Julie Kennedy, a realtor who lives on what she describes as a 180-acre ranch on the outskirts of Livingston, wrote a letter to the county commission that she’s convinced zoning would create “the Jackson Hole Syndrome” which she describes this way: “Zoning will allow those ‘that have’ to keep or drive those that ‘don’t have’ out of the area, and will over time give our community a homogenous ‘Jackson Hole’ feel,” she wrote. “This is not what makes strong communities. I can appreciate the desire for open spaces, view sheds, and keeping things from running wild. But this is an ideal and will never be obtained without locking out all growth in our economy and community.”
In the polls noted above, many respondents expressed worry that Park County was heading down the same path as Jackson Hole and Bozeman.
Story says that “progress can’t be stopped.” “Back in the 1980s, people thought they could control growth here by zoning. They said they didn’t want to see a lot more yard lights at night all over the valley. But their attempts to limit what people can do with their land backfired,” Story explained. “What’s done is done [subdivided lands that can be developed] and nobody is going to stop it.”
He reminds that one of the reasons why many ranches and farms were subdivided in the 1970s and 1980s was in response to earlier pushes for zoning. Many did it, he said, to preserve their private property rights by grandfathering them in and keep their develop options open should they need cash to remain viable or send their kids to college.
Subdivided properties, however, do not make their development a fait accompli. Lot lines can be re-drawn. Instead of homes scattered across a parcel they can be clustered in ways that leave space open for working ranches and wildlife. Moreover, even without countywide zoning, property owners in local areas of a county can come together and voluntarily create their own zoning districts, similar to how subdivisions have covenants. But it requires approval by a majority of landowners living inside the district.
There are thousands of parcels in Park County that already have been subdivided in ways that, if developed, would have dire consequences for wildlife and wildlife movement. But by re-platting the parcels and encouraging development to be clustered together, ranchers can profit, wildlife wins by having to navigate less fragmented habitat, homeowners can live in a place where view sheds are protected and taxpayers don't have to subsidize higher costs associated with exurban sprawl. Image courtesy Friends of Park County
What’s driving growth is the larger modern macro-trend of technology enabling people to pack up their bags in New York City or Los Angeles and work remotely. “You can’t zone people out or do it with the hope you’re going to prevent them from coming,” Story says. “People look at us and say, ‘You’ve got four miles of the Yellowstone River. Why don’t you sell a chunk?’ I would hate to do that, but I don’t want someone else telling us we can’t. It’s a tough deal.”
He insists that existing minimal planning regulations are adequate, and he doesn’t believe large ranches and other land holdings are in danger of being converted to residential subdivisions. If a large property like his comes on the market, it’s more likely it will be purchased by a billionaire who wants to own it as a recreational retreat. Story acknowledges, however, that mom and pop farmers and ranchers are facing a crisis as younger generations are not interested in having careers in ag and prefer to sell the property and take the cash.
Does Story miss the days when Paradise Valley was quieter and less frenetic? Absolutely. “I could stand on top of the mountain in the 1970s and tell you who had property beneath every yard light. I can’t do that anymore, but that hasn’t significantly changed our way of living. A lot of other things do— that the people coming in don’t think about. Like new neighbors who have no understanding of the weed problem that’s getting harder to control on our ranch borders. Weeds are a threat that cuts into our profitability.”
Among the most influential land stewards in Park County is billionaire Arthur M. Blank who divides his time between Montana and Atlanta. Blank has purchased several ranches and put tens of thousands of acres under conservation easement. “What’s most important for our neighbors to know is that this purchase is about conservation, not development,” Blank said in a statement related to one of his latest purchases. “We will respect the tradition of ranching while keeping our lands in their original, intact state for the sake of beauty and wildlife.”
"What’s most important for our neighbors to know is that this purchase is about conservation, not development. We will respect the tradition of ranching while keeping our lands in their original, intact state for the sake of beauty and wildlife.” —Arthur M. Blank, American businessman and mega landowner in Paradise Valley, Montana
Blank is an outspoken proponent of letting market forces work, but he can’t, nor does he desire, to buy up all of the remaining rural working lands in Paradise Valley. That’s why Foote says zoning is essential to serve as a foundation for thoughtful planning and be there when the free market is insufficient, as has been in the Gallatin Valley, to deal with growth. She says Friends of Park County are conservative in their ideology. They favor conservation, having better tools to keep rural people on the land and working class people in their community, and they seek fiscal responsibility, which sprawl negates.
Story voices an inherent distrust of government and he doesn’t like zoning, but he also doesn’t know what, if anything, can be done to slow the transformation of Park County. Kathy Foote, another ranch kid whose ancestors knew Story’s ancestors, said something needs to be done differently or else the magic of Park County is going to be lost. By not acting, it’s not a matter of if, but when the character of the county vanishes.
Foote says citizens put people into elected office with expectations that they will lead difficult discussions and rise to meet challenges. “A lot of people I know are incredibly frustrated by what’s happening, and they feel powerless. They feel like they have no say,” she said. “ They don’t want to let the changes just happen to them and the community. They want the county commission and the planning board to step up.”
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Back in 2021 when the Park County Commission and planning board explored possible beefed-up zoning options that would better align with efforts underway in Livingston, rumors swirled. Grassroots letter writing campaigns were initiated and accompanied by no-zoning signs. While concerns were genuine, some of the arguments invoked amounted to scare tactics pure and simple, holding little basis in fact.
Among the claims was that the county wanted to stifle business opportunity, shut down development altogether and enact rules that amounted to a taking of private property. What the anti-zoning zealots failed to acknowledge is that the rising costs of sprawl are foisted on all property owners in the county and thus it could be argued they are helping to subsidize the profits of land developers who are not paying for the negative impacts being foisted on the community.
The credo of being able to do with one’s land whatever one wants as a God-given right has a patriotic ring, so long as impacts stop at one’s property line.
Contrary to how anti-zoning activists portray it, zoning is not a monolithic edict; it can take many different forms and is not being advanced by its proponents on any false pretense of halting growth but steering it forward in a way that does not destroy community, land, or break the budget of local government coffers, Foote says.
People forget: Covenants set up by rural homeowner’s associations (HOAs) which can govern type of structure, building materials and kind of out buildings are a form of zoning, the same as noise ordinances that prevent noisy concert venues from disrupting peace and quiet late at night define the limits of personal conduct. Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are products of zoning that proscribe what humans can and cannot do. So are national forests.
State regs, which are supposed to prevent people with individual septic systems from fouling neighbors’ wells are a form of planning with teeth. So, too, are regulations pertaining to the siting of gun shooting ranges, forcing landowners to fence cattle out of their property to prevent bovine trespass, and not allowing new smelly livestock feedlots to rise on the edge of a town. As a counter to the tyranny of the majority argument, the absence of zoning allows individuals who don’t share community values or who put their profit interests ahead of being a good neighbor to hold sway.
Just as HOAs provide predictability, create expectations for property owners and encourage civility, so, too, can zoning. Across the country, there are myriad examples of zoning in which creativity and flexibility to profit off one’s land are not stifled but encouraged. A few examples involve the transfer of development rights to protect areas or zoning ag lands so that the owner of a ranch or farm can sell lots and cluster development which allows them to generate income and maintain open space that is crucial to their operation and provides important wildlife habitat and views valued by the community.
There also are a variety of taxing mechanisms that generate revenue from visitors, with proceeds that can be used incentivize rural land conservation, pay for infrastructure and provide property tax relief. And there are conservation easements in which a landowner voluntarily sells development rights and restrictions are placed on the deed in perpetuity, plus there are now shorter-term agreements that basically pay landowners a kind of rent to make space for wildlife. Read more about the Western Landowners Alliance's habitat leasing program.
What hasn’t worked, what doesn’t work, and what will not work, experts say pointing to the rest of the West, is stubborn adherence to laissez-faire strategies for accommodating growth that often become catalysts for more problems that are expensive, if not impossible, to fix. Further, a city or county can have the best growth policy on paper in the world, but unless those policies are implemented, enforced, defended and continuously strengthened, they are theoretical paper toothless tigers.
If Park Countians want an example of what happens when apathy sets in on the part of a succession of elected officials who aren’t willing to turn the rhetoric of planning into action, all they need to do is gaze over Bozeman Pass and see what’s coming quickly in their direction.
Over the last few years, residents of Park County have weighed in on efforts to strengthen review of projects, how to mitigate conflict and a push for more unified zoning. One letter writer, Bob Parker, who lives in Paradise Valley wrote about how exhausting it can be for citizens to have to fight off development battle by individual battle. He mentioned how he and others worked to stop a proposed gravel pit and asphalt plant south of Emigrant.
“I grew up in Kansas City and still have a home there, but I’ve always felt a strong connection to Montana, as my mother’s family goes back six generations in the state. I view Paradise Valley as a special place in the world and have wondered if a lot of people who grew up here or have spent most of their lives here really understand and appreciate what a truly special place it is,” he wrote. “To allow unfettered development is to potentially diminish the value not only to people who live here but to the millions of people who visit here every year.”
Parker warned that once “the Genie” of pervasive scattershot sprawl “is out of the bottle it can never be put back in.”
NOTE: For further reading click on blue links and, below that, some more graphics that further illustrate the polling results. Did you find this story informative? If yes, please help us bring more like it by supporting Mountain Journal.
In Gallatin Gateway, Battle Rages Over Proposed 'Glampground' on Gallatin River by Joseph T. O'Connor
Why 'Yellowstone' Rancher John Dutton Says 'Progress' Is Destroying The Wild Rural West by Todd Wilkinson
How Do We Prevent Wild Greater Yellowstone from Unraveling? by Todd Wilkinson
Headwaters' Report Highlights Downsides Of So-Called Green Lifestyle Economy by Todd Wilkinson
The two graphics below pertain to the statewide poll
commissioned by the University of Montana
The series of graphics below speak to opinions
of residents/voters of Park County, Montana