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Stepping up to setbacks

Rivers and Streams

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Missoula County’s proposal to create zoning that restricts development near rivers and streams is drawing the same controversy that so often surrounds other water issues such as stream access.

About 70 people turned up for the April 23 standing-room-only Missoula meeting, one of nine informal meetings being held throughout the county to explain and accept feedback on the draft stream setback proposal. Much of the reaction came from landowners who fear their property rights will be infringed, although a number of speakers argued that destructive development near waterways is harmful to entire communities, not to mention wildlife habitat.

The proposal itself would create setbacks that prohibit development in the riparian zones lining rivers and streams. Mel Waggy, a rural landscape scientist with Missoula County’s Office of Rural Initiatives, explains the width of the setbacks would vary depending on three guidelines. Development would be prohibited on property that’s within the 100-year floodplain or contains riparian vegetation, and if those two factors don’t apply, the setback would be declared: 200 feet on the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Swan rivers; 150 feet on Rock Creek and the Clearwater and Blackfoot rivers; 100 feet on Ninemile, Rattlesnake, Petty, Morrell and Lolo creeks; and 75 feet on all other streams not named above. Within the setback areas, agricultural use would be allowed and existing homes or structures would be grandfathered in, but new structures, roads or mowing would not otherwise be allowed. Landowners could seek special approval from the county for projects not permitted by the setbacks.

While Waggy says stream setbacks are “a proven tool that have been used around the country” to protect rivers and streams, she says the specific details in Missoula’s proposal have proven highly contentious. She anticipates that Missoula County Commissioners will use locals’ input to help craft a second, official proposal in coming months.

“There are a variety of values we’re trying to protect, and finding the right setback to protect these things is hard,” Waggy says. “We’re trying to find a happy medium in there and no one seems happy.”

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