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Yellowstone County Commissioners have approved changes to landscaping zone regulations. The amendment is the first segment of changes that is the product of Project Re-code, which is a long-term endeavor to update the county zoning regulations.

The landscaping portion of the regulation changes have been pushed to the fore because that is the only segment of the zoning code that has threatened lawsuits against the county, according to County Commissioner John Ostlund. 

Property owners trying to develop along thoroughfares, especially along the interstate highway, have frequently complained that under previous zoning, not only were the requirements for landscaping  onerous, but impractical in terms of being sustainable and in serving commerce well.  Planners seem to agree.

Nicole Cromwell of the City County Planning Department explained that previous regulations mandated specifics that failed to take into account varying conditions — for example, requiring more plants than what is sustainable — developers were being required to plant 85 trees when only 30 of those trees would live.

County Commissioners, fearful of possible suits, expressed relief that the landscaping codes were finally being addressed, which in a sense stood as a detriment to economic development in the county.

The existing zoning codes “didn’t recognize the realities of things,” said former deputy attorney Dan Schwarz, who prior to his recent retirement served on the committee. The old code didn’t take into account that this is a very arid climate —“We only get 13 inches of rainfall a year.” The code was “making demands on water we didn’t really have.”

The costs for the landscaping and for ongoing maintenance, imposed untenable burdens on businesses, while also, in many cases, circumventing the whole point of locating along a high-traffic area – visibility. One business that strongly pushed back against the code was Bretz RV, which chose their location along Interstate 91 precisely because passers-by could easily see the recreational vehicles they had for sale. The thrust of the zoning requirements they encountered was to hide their place of business and what they were trying to sell.

The codes focused on camouflaging and blocking views of businesses for which property owners wanted maximum exposure, and for which they had paid premium prices. The whole system and policy was “counter productive,” for everyone involved, said Schwarz, who over his years as county deputy attorney heard lots of complaints from many developers.

Ostlund pointed out that for a business like Bretz RV the requirements were so extreme that they were not even allowed room for snow removal.

“We wanted to give developers an opportunity to have more alternatives. We have given them the ability to submit site plans that are unique to the property instead of a one-size fits all regulation,” said Schwarz. The outcome, he said, is a good compromise — “we want sound development, and we want it to look good.”

The changes to the zoning code, rather than requiring strict numerical standards and regimented applications, establishes a point system for landscaping, which allows for greater flexibility in dealing with different conditions and situations. The developer gets credit for things like leaving existing trees in place or choosing native grasses. Trees may be grouped instead of regimented spacing, buffers are not required between properties of similar use, a broader range of fencing is allowed, and new materials may be more easily incorporated.

The code requires that for developments under 1.5 acres a professional landscaper must be hired. That was a primary point of contention during the formation of the codes and settling on 1.5 acres was a compromise between those who wanted the expertise of a professional and those concerned about the costs that would be imposed on businesses.

“We believe these codes will help people see the value in commercial landscaping,” said Daryl Tunnecliff, who served on the Re-code committee.

Yellowstone County’s zoning laws have not been changed since 1971. The codes need to be changed, said Cromwell, so that they allow developers to better comply with the Growth Policy for the county and for Lockwood, which although not a regulatory document is used to guide decisions that are made as the community grows. The changed regulations will allow for more consistency  and predictability, and will clarify areas in conflict or confusion, said Comwell.

The regulations are applicable primarily to commercial development, and do not dictate what people can put in their yards, said Cromwell.

Project Re-code was launched in 2017 with the appointment of a steering committee by the Planning Board. The Zoning Commission forwarded the final product to the County Commissioners with a unanimous recommendation of approval.