Archive for January 12th, 2008

by Rebecca Schmitz

Jhwygirl has written extensively and persuasively about the need for county-wide zoning in Montana. Yet another reason is emerging from the Fire Suppression Interim Committee meetings. The Committee, created by the 2007 Legislature, seems to have come to two conclusions already. First, Montana’s taxpayers, urban and rural, are forking over millions and millions of dollars for wildfire suppression. Pretty damn obvious, huh? Well, the second is a little more controversial. The bill for fighting wildfires will rise steadily every year unless something sensible and far-reaching is done now to curb the main reason for the rising costs: more and more homes being built in the wildland-urban interface. That something was mentioned just this past week in Billings. Committee members and the public actually said the dreaded “z” word.

Local governments have three ways of potentially guiding growth in wooded areas, according to documents submitted by Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties. Regulations for subdivisions give some control over how growth occurs. Zoning is another option …Zoning is a “nonstarter,” said Mary Sexton, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which oversees state firefighting. In almost all counties, it’s very difficult for commissioners to impose county-wide zoning.

Despite Sexton’s pessimism, and the potential for immediate pain to property owners in these vulnerable areas, it seems like the Montana Association of Counties and those with experience managing our state’s wildlands think zoning is a good idea:

Blattie and his group proposed a law just for fire-prone areas that would be similar to the way governments control building in floodplains. His idea is to allow local governments to identify the “wildland-urban interface” and formulate rules for building in the area. Counties would be able to enforce the rules. State Forester Bob Harrington said he would like to see some kind of enforceable regulation, not just recommendations to homeowners.

Predictably, one group was there to make sure zoning would be, in Sexton’s words, a “nonstarter”. Yes, it was that guardian of sensible responsible controlled rampant development, the Montana Association of Realtors:

Glenn Oppel, government affairs director for the Montana Association of Realtors, said his group favored a plan in which the state wouldn’t enforce building practices, only make recommendations. Oppel also questioned whether homes were driving up firefighting costs.

Frankly, having a Realtor testify before a committee honestly investigating the rising costs of wildfire suppression is like a member of NAMBLA speaking before a conference on the international sex trafficking of children. Sure, technically you could say they’re one of the stakeholders in the discussion but, like Realtors, only so far as they’re interested in relaxing laws and regulations.

I’m sure as the Fire Suppression Interim Committee moves across the state picking up testimony from firefighters, elected officials, foresters, concerned members of the public, and those, like Glenn Oppel, who simply want to represent their industry’s own narrow interests in the process, they’ll gather a lot of interesting and creative solutions to our state’s growing problem with the costs and dangers of wildland firefighting.  Most likely the Committee, and the rest of us, can look forward to the Montana Association of Realtors’ solution. Perhaps it will be something similar to the Bitterroot Board of Realtors’ plan for dealing with streamside setbacks in Ravalli County: a bewildering “gift” of proposed wildland buffer zones that will inevitably force Montana’s taxpayers to pay the ever-increasing bill for both wildfire suppression and their industry’s profits.

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