Cascade County zoning regulations continue to evolve since 2005 creation

Some photos of letters have been circulating Facebook and have been presented as letters from the developer requesting a zone change.

The was not the case, according to Cascade County planning officials.

The document was an internal memo was a half-sheet of paper used as scratch paper and a yellow sticky note was attached with a list of other definitions to add to the regulations, according to a six-page response from county planning to The Electric. When the memo was photocopied at the request of a citizen, the administrative assistant placed the yellow sticky note below the half-sheet of paper, which copied what appeared to be a full-size letter with a scribbled signature, according to county planning. The signature is not actually a signature, but is instead the letters c and h which were inscribed atop another note, according to county planning.

“The photocopied image was distorted and misrepresents the original documents. The original documents are in the file and available for viewing,” according to the county response.

The planning department’s internal document of draft language for a proposed zoning amendment. The half sheet of paper and the sticky note are available in the file in the county planning office.

County zoning was updated this year, in part due to legislative changes.

From the late 1970s until February 2005, a dual system of zoning existed in which a joint city-county planning department oversaw land use matters within the city limits and a surrounding radius of contiguous county jurisdiction for about 4.5 miles beyond the city limits. The area was often referred to as the doughnut and included a mix of zoning districts. Outside the doughnut, land use was regulated by the county planning department and during that time, the county used Conditional Use Permits or Industrial Use Permits to authorize commercial activities, according to county planning, and no formal zoning classification existed outside the doughnut. Those permits predate the current Special Use Permit, but the processes are similar.

The 2005 Montana Legislative session changed county development plans and required counties to prepare growth policies. As a result, Cascade County modified its county-wide permitting process.

At the same time, local residents and elected officials questioned the effectiveness of the joint land use system, which was dissolved. In April 2005, the county adopted new zoning regulations that have been updated continually in the years since for legislative updates. When those legislative updates are made, county staff often make edits or procedural changes as well, according to the county. Zoning updates have been made in 2007, 2009, 2012, 2016 and this year.

In addition to legislative changes, zoning changes have also been made to eliminate inconsistent language that is discovered by the public or planning staff while using the regulations, or through discussions with potential applicants who seek an action that is not clearly defined or regulated in county regulation or a technologically new usage; or legal action in the area or nationwide. For example, the city recently updated part of its sign code related to casino signage in response to court cases nationwide related to free speech.

When the county adopted zoning regulations in 2005, it kept many of the same names of zoning districts, including agricultural, which has caused some confusion, though many nonagricultural uses have been permitted in the agricultural district. The city-county zoning rules in effect from 1996-2005 included these uses, among others, in the agricultural district:

  • agricultural uses of land, buildings, and structures;
  • churches and/or parish house;
  • school and/or college for academic instruction;
  • commercial dairy, riding academy;
  • single family dwellings;
  • golf courses which may include a pro shop, lounge, restaurant, miniature golf course, etc. 

Special Use Permit provisions also allowed in an agriculturally zoned district included:

  • tower and studio facility related to radio and television broadcasting;
  • cemetery, mausoleum, crematorium;
  • commercial building for raising, breeding, and boarding dogs or other small animals;
  • quarry, sand, and gravel pit;
  • hospital, sanitarium;
  • public or private airports or landing fields;
  • public or privately owner solid waste disposal sites;
  • utility sub stations;
  • two family dwellings;
  • storage of buildings materials, equipment;
  • temporary real estate offices;
  • animal hospitals;
  • commercial propagation, boarding, grazing or butchering of small animals and fowl provided that the animals may not be stabled or processed within 200 feet from any property line and the operation is not considered a wholesale feed lot or meat-packing use.

The most recent code updates started with legislative actions that required the addition of medical marijuana dispensaries. Around the same time Edward Friesen started discussions with county planning staff and it became clear the project he might propose was not clearly defined in the regulations.

The zoning regulations at the time included the terms slaughterhouse and feedlot, the regulations didn’t specify a definition of a commercial feedlot or wholesale feedlot, which is often associated with a slaughterhouse operation, according to county planning.

Friesen was also proposing a distillery, which wasn’t previously been defined in county zoning regulations. The code had been updated in recent years to add definitions related to micro-breweries and since distilleries have been cropping up across the state, “staff recognized a need to incorporate a definition, identify appropriate locations and establish a permitting process should distillery businesses be pursued in Cascade County,” according to county planning.

During February meetings with Friesen, he indicated he was looking for properties that would allow for meat processing, cheese production and a distillery, according to county planning.

Staff told him that any legal use allowed in the state is allowed on lands zoning as I2 Heavy Industrial. According to planning, that zoning is “a catchall zoning classification allowing any legal use not currently outlined in county regulation.”

Medical marijuana dispensaries are one example, as they are a legal use in the state of Montana but have not yet been recognized within a zoning district in Cascade County regulation.

Staff researched existing regulations and determined that the distillery would be allowed with a SUP under the updated county rules, as would milk production.

“Planning staff reviewed inquiries regarding a food processing/meat-packing plant/slaughterhouse and determined current regulation allows for the commercial propagation, boarding, grazing or butchering of small animals provided that the animals may not be stabled or processed within 200 feet from any property line and the operation is not considered a wholesale feed lot or meat packing use. This regulatory language allowed for the processing of fowl, pigs, and other small animals, but not cattle,” according to county planing.

The language was in existence since 1981 and had never been questioned, according to the county. Due to discussions with Friesen, as a potential developer, staff determined the existing language would need clarification.

“Modifications to the existing language in the zoning regulation in this regard was not specifically developed to address one particular applicant/developer’s needs, but allow consideration of this type of use within the county,” according to planning. “Regulations are updated, changed, or created with consideration as to whether a type of use should/should not be allowed, and if so under what conditions. The ability for meat-packing/slaughterhouse/wholesale feedlot/concentrated animal feeding operations under one development would benefit producers within the county.”

The 2014 county growth policy specifically addressed the fact that most beef production in the county is shipped to feedlots in other states that are combines with beef packing facilities.

Details of specific projects are not included to the Planning Board and County Commission when they are asked to consider zoning changes, according to planning staff. A separate board, the Zoning Board of Adjustment reviews SUP applications.

The zoning changes were presented to the County Commission in May and according to the minutes, only one person spoke and her comments focused on the medical marijuana dispensaries. The commission passed a resolution of intent to amend the zoning regulations on May 9, starting a 30-day protest period. No written protests were received and the zoning changes were adopted.

In discussions with Friesen, staff told him they were recommending several zoning updates and that he also had the right to request a regulation change for clarification of existing language or consideration of new language. Draft language was in the county file, but was never sent to Friesen, according to planning. Staff decided to present recommended changes and include in their staff report that some of the changes were due to public requests.

“Planning staff wanted to acknowledge recent discussions about a potential use without divulging any details about a specific development project. This practice is common, and prevents bias when zoning changes are evaluated by the Planning Board and commissioners. The staff report specifically stated ‘Some uses were added due to potential incoming development that would be compatible in agricultural districts as there may not be enough property zoned Heavy Industrial which would allow these types of uses,’” according to planning staff.

The term heavy industrial was used, according to planning, because it’s the legal catchall for any allowable use within state law and staff said the phrase “would be compatible in agricultural districts” was meant to suggest that somewhere in the county, those types of uses would be compatible.