LIVINGSTON, Mont. - Paradise is a place with a population of one, says Charles Rahn. A rancher whose family has owned a 3,300-acre operation southeast of town for 50 years, Rahn says, "It's only paradise for the first person who shows up."
So last year, Rahn led a successful petition drive to form a 66,000-acre zoning district that he and others hope will rein in development. He admits that at times he has felt selfish for trying to keep others from owning what he already has.
But after that first person arrives, Rahn says, the sheen is gone from paradise.
"If they destroy what they're searching for by their presence, it's lost to everyone," says Rahn. He also points to the need to retain agriculture and lessen the cost to the taxpayers of providing services, such as snowplowing and school buses, as reasons for creating the West Boulder Zoning District.
Forming the district took the signatures of some 170 residents who own 50 percent of the land. Those in the majority - about 60 percent of the people, including TV anchor Tom Brokaw - see the district formation as grassroots democracy at its best. But some landowners in the minority say they are being overrun by land-use dictators. Recently several of them sued the county, claiming they had not been properly informed about the new restrictions proposed for their land.
In Montana, regulation does not usually go over well. Gallatin County tried a few years ago to implement a countywide system that required anyone wanting to change the designated use of land - from agriculture to residential, for example - to apply for a permit. Officials spent nearly a year traveling around the county explaining the plan to residents, but the proposal was then derailed by property-rights advocates.
But while they are fairly new to Park County, zoning districts have been around for decades: Gallatin County has 15 and Yellowstone County has about seven, some of which date back to the early 1970s.
Faced with complaints from property owners who still want some regulation in their neighborhoods, officials in Gallatin, Park and Yellowstone counties now show people how to form a zoning district. Residents must collect the signatures representing 60 percent of the residents and half of the land in a proposed district. Commissioners then hold a public hearing, and vote on whether to approve a district. Once commissioners approve a district, they appoint a citizens' committee to hammer out regulations for homeowners.
The process can take a few months, as it did in an East Yellowstone district near here, or a few years, as in the case of Cooke City, which sits outside Yellowstone National Park. The regulations can be simple, stating, for instance, that homes can be built only on parcels of a certain minimum size. Or the regulations can become heavy books, as in the controversial and growing areas of Bridger Canyon and Big Sky. The regulations there include guidelines on housing design and setbacks from streams and roads.
The benefit, say government officials, is that residents control their destiny. "It's not like the Big Brother government coming down on them," says Kerwin Jensen, a zoning coordinator for Billings and Yellowstone County.
There is some government control. Often the planning department acts as the enforcer, and county commissioners, along with two other elected officials, have final say on interpretations of the ordinance.
But Bob Jockers, a semi-retired furniture builder, will tell you that a majority can be oppressive. Jockers, whose family has owned land east of Livingston by the Yellowstone River for 50-some years, now greets his neighbors with a Hitler salute. His gripe: Last year, the East Yellowstone Zoning District was formed specifically to prevent him from putting 35 homes on 96 acres in the semi-rural area where 10- and 20-acre lots are more the norm.
"They stole my property," says Jockers, who believes that if the neighbors want his property to remain undeveloped, they should pay him for it. "The law allows it, but as far as I'm concerned, they stole my property. I'm not a crazy Freeman with guns in my cellar, but I do believe we are losing what this country is all about."
Don Smith, a veterinarian, bought his lot from Jockers' father and has lived there 17 years. Then Jockers proposed his subdivision, which would allow manufactured homes in an attempt to provide affordable housing.
"We were told this would remain a rural environment," says Smith. "I would not have moved here if I knew there was going to be a trailer park out front."
Smith says he understands Jockers' anger, but says regulation has to start somewhere.
"Once that zoning ordinance is in, the 40 percent of the people who didn't want it are under the same restrictions as the ones that did," says Jockers, who says he acts as a spoiler on the committee assigned to write the regulations for the area. "It's an uphill battle, and I don't expect to win."
Fear of too much control
At the south end of Park County, neighbors tussled for five years over a zoning ordinance for the Cooke City and Silver Gate area.
The district was an attempt to regulate a proposed gold mine in the area. After residents found local zoning would not have much effect on mining, they continued to forge ahead with an ordinance.
Proponents say a few regulations will allow the remote mountain area to maintain a rustic feel. Critics contend there is no such thing as a little regulation. They fear zoning will eventually mandate everything, from the color of their garage to the height of their woodpiles, and this in an area so isolated in the winter that if you're not speaking to your neighbors, you might not speak to anyone until spring.
Ken Hufford, who chairs the committee that wrote the ordinance, says that at first he was against any regulations because he thought there would be no local control. But he looked at the unregulated areas around Park and Gallatin counties and disliked what he saw.
The Cooke City ordinance is simple and only aims to retain the area's appeal, says Hufford, a builder who also works for the Forest Service.
"It's so liberal, the majority of people won't come into any conflict with what they want to do," Hufford says.
Meanwhile, the transformation of pasture into subdivisions continues. In a letter to a local paper recently, Joe Rahn asked, "Need we be reminded of the old basic truth, we can't take it with us? Whatever we may accumulate in wealth and material things will be left behind when we cross over from this life. Of greater importance is how we leave the land."
Joe Kolman reports out of the Billings Gazette's Bozeman Bureau.
Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Building a $100 million paradise in Montana's Paradise Valley."
You can contact ...
* Park County Planner Ellen Woodbury, 406/222-4144;
* Park County commissioners, 406-222-4106;
* Buffalo Ranch Development Team, 406/582-0221;
* Project manager Dave Molebash, 406/220-0068.