Zoning District Primer

This is an introduction to the development of zoning districts in Lake County, Montana. It describes the basic concepts and processes associated with this growth-management tool. Before delving into the specifics, however, please read the following information to keep in mind throughout the process:

  • The majority of the work will be done by those proposing the zoning district. The Lake County Planning Department is pleased to provide guidance, mapping and information resources, facilitation, and technical advice, but the regulations must be developed locally.
  • All landowners within the proposed area should be included at every step. Accusations of secret meetings only hurt the cause.
  • Expect some controversy. Do not expect to please everyone all of the time.
  • Compromise is required to develop an acceptable set of regulations.
  • If the purpose is clear and the regulations are reasonable and kept simple, success is likely.

Zoning Districts

A zoning district is a geographic area for which land-use regulations are adopted. The process used to form zoning districts and the contents of zoning regulations are outlined in Title 76, Chapter 2 MCA. The regulations must conform to the Lake County Growth Policy A few of the subjects typically included in zoning regulations are development densities, building setbacks, and the types of uses that are permitted within the district boundaries. There are currently thirteen zoning districts in Lake County, most of which border a lake, except for the City of Ronan, Town of Saint Ignatius, and South Ronan districts. A map of the current zoning districts in Lake County is available from the plat department in the Lake County courthouse.

How the Process Works

  • Identify local leaders and form a steering committee.
  • Propose a boundary area. The boundary could be based on land use, drainage or other physical features, ownership, relationship to other zoned areas, etc.
  • Send out a survey to all landowners within the proposed boundary to assess their feelings, goals, and concerns and to find out if there is general support for a planning process.
  • If local support is there, invite all landowners to a meeting to flesh out what the issues and local concerns are.
  • Using the survey results and further discussions, compile a set of draft regulations.
  • Continue refining the regulations until an agreement is reached.
  • Hold a public hearing on the district and regulations. A demonstrated majority of the landholders is generally required to approve the regulations.
  • Adopt the regulations by resolution of the Board of County Commissioners.

Advantages of Adopting Regulations

  • The process is citizen-directed and democratic-local landowners may guide growth in ways that are specific to the local landscape.
  • The process is highly flexible-regulations may be very limited or fairly strict, depending on the perceived need.
  • The process is based on the consensus-an issue is not settled until all parties can come to an agreement.
  • Everyone who wants to participate can have a major role.
  • Citizens may direct growth to where it makes the most sense--higher density and commercial areas near existing communities and public services, lower density in agricultural areas, and wildlife habitats.
  • Land-use regulations may be used to protect property values and separate incompatible uses.

Disadvantages of Adopting Regulations

  • The process takes lots of effort and patience. Coming to an agreement with people who see things differently can be difficult.
  • The process can take a long time. Coming up with a set of regulations, public hearings, and a comment period may take up to three years.
  • Landowners place some restrictions on their future use of the property.
  • Bad feelings between landowners could develop.

Additional Notes

  • The regulations do not restrict the uses of the property that occur when the regulations go into effect (i.e., the "grandfather clause").
  • The majority of Lake County lies within the Flathead Indian Reservation. Although land held in Tribal and Individual Trust status is exempt from County land-use regulations, Tribal representatives should be invited to participate.
  • A zoning district may have sub-districts where different land uses are prevalent and different regulations apply. For example, within a zoning district, an agricultural area can be one sub-district (with agricultural densities, setbacks, etc.) while a townsite can be a different sub-district (with higher densities, mixed uses, etc.)
  • Writing regulations is not an easy process, and it takes input from all political sides and socio-economic levels.