City, county may split ways on zoning regulations

Originally published in the 8/25/17 print edition of Yellowstone County News.

BILLINGS — Yellowstone County Commissioners approved a proposed separation of the zoning regulations that govern the City of Billings and Yellowstone County.

Called the Unified Zoning Regulations, the City-County Planning Board proposed separating the governance of the two governmental entities to facilitate a planned update and revision of the goals and policies of each.

By the time County Commissioners approved the separation, the City Council had already approved the proposal, said Nicole Cromwell, zoning coordinator and code enforcement supervisor for the Planning Department.

Cromwell said that the separation involved no other changes or deletions to the Unified Zoning Regulations and, in fact, much time was spent on making sure that the zoning regulations for the county and for the city remained the same. Going forward, each governing body will be able to consider and adopt changes to the zoning code for their own jurisdiction.

The City and County agreed to unify the zoning code in 1993 and it was completed in 1997. The separation was initiated by the Yellowstone County Board of Planning as a step in a multi-year project to update and “modernize” the zoning codes to meet the goals and guidelines adopted through Growth Policies, Neighborhood Plans and other land use policies.

In the past, the county has held the policy of not requiring that local regulations implement the goals of growth policies as is urged by state and federal government agencies. County commissioners have held that the growth policy should be a guiding document only, a position that has often conflicted with planning department strategies.

Cromwell said that at the conclusion of the updating process, the governing bodies can reconsider the re-unification of all or portions of the zoning regulations. The Planning Department will still administer the regulations.

Current zoning regulations were adopted by the City of Billings in 1972, and the county did likewise a year later. That was over 45 years ago, noted Cromwell, who said staff believes it is time for an update — which they think will take between one a half and two and a half years.

Zoning regulations, which govern how property owners may use their property, involve 450 pages and represents a third of the entire City Code.

“Over the decades, the policies and goals of the City and County have changed considerably, but the essential tools the Council, the County Commission, and community use to implement new goals and policies have remained essentially unchanged.”

The current regulations have almost no way to control aesthetical and architectural elements to how property owners choose to develop and build residential and commercial structures. And, there are other “challenges that residents, developers, boards and commissions and staff encounter,” reads the resolution document – challenges involving lot size, lot coverage and setback requirements which have resulted in many variance requests.

“There is also a lack of consistency with signage regulations” between what is required by the county and what is required by the city regarding commercial development.

“The code also has inconsistent landscaping requirements across commercial districts that lead to uneven landscaping in commercial areas, along major transportation corridors, and claims of unequal treatment of devilment in these various areas,” reads the document.

Changes in the regulations could also be made to address areas like Lockwood, it proposes, referring to the recently completed Lockwood Growth Policy that set goals and guidelines on how some people in that community want to grow over the next 20 years.

The county will also update its 2008 Growth Policy for areas not now controlled. The city updated its Growth Policy in 2016.

“The County and City also have some areas where they have diverged in their approach to land use regulations and it may be time to separate portions of these codes again,” it reads.

Cromwell said that they are in the process of identifying citizens to serve on the committees that will update the zoning regulations.

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