Hearing on lakeshore regulations draws crowd
Tiffani Murphy, head of the Lake County Planning Department, discusses proposed amendments to the Lakeshore Protection Regulations during a public hearing last week in Polson. (Kristi Niemyer/Lake County Leader)
Editor | November 17, 2022 12:00 AM
A surprisingly crowded council chamber awaited Lake County Commissioners last Thursday for a hearing on a resolution to amend the Lakeshore Protection Regulations. Around 20 lakeshore property owners were on hand, with many protesting the “complex and overreaching” document.
Regulations have been on the books since 1979, in keeping with legislation requiring county governments to monitor development within 20 feet of the shoreline and out into lakes larger than 160 acres. Portions of Flathead Lake, Swan Lake and Lake Mary Ronan fall into the county’s regulatory purview.
According to Steve Rosso, chair of the Lake County Planning Board, “nearly any project, repair or maintenance in the lakeshore zone has required a permit and certain requirements be met for more than 30 years.”
The current version was initially passed in 2001 and has seen several revisions since. The amended LPR has been in the works for the past two years and was approved by the planning board Sept. 14.
That information clearly came as a surprise to some of the audience at Thursday’s hearing.
Polson attorney Doug Wold, who came to Polson 77 years ago, said he’s seen all manner of violations of the LPR in his many years of living on or near Flathead Lake.
“Are you, the county commissioners, going to require the 4,000 of us who live around the lake to pull out breakwaters, get rid of our lawns, and take down our docks that aren’t total flow through? How are you going to enforce this?” he asked.
Tiffani Murphy, director of the Lake County Planning Department, pointed out that existing structures are grandfathered in with an “entire section on nonconforming uses.”
“It essentially says that anything that is an existing nonconforming use, you are allowed to maintain and do moderate repairs to,” she said. “What you cannot do is expand the nonconforming use,” by, for example, lengthening a dock that’s already in violation of the regulations.
The 40-plus-page document does cover all matter of lakeshore development, from trees, vegetation and landscaping (including fire rings), to boat houses, lifts and ramps, docks and breakwaters, and any other structures that fall within that 20-foot protection zone.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes also have shoreline protection regulations, mostly governing construction that extends from the highwater mark into the lake, since the bed and banks of the south half of Flathead Lake are held by the United States in trust for the Tribes. Flathead County and the State of Montana are also part of the regulatory mix.
Frank Mutch, who serves on the county planning board and worked on the amendments, nonetheless encouraged county commissioners to send the amended version back to the board and planning department with instructions to “make it simple, simple, simple – 10 pages at the most.”
He also encouraged the county to seek more regulatory conformity. “Let’s not adopt these until we make a really strong effort to make them uniform and maybe even include Flathead County,” he suggested. “It would help everyone who has lakeshore property. We share a common goal – we want the lake to be protected and to be pure and clear.”
Rosso, on the other hand, encouraged commissioners to pass the intent to adopt the regulations, noting that the planning board and staff spent considerable time looking for ways to streamline the more common permitting issues. Among those changes:
• Modifications that cost under $200, such as minor repairs or cutting down fallen trees, will no longer require permits;
• An emergency permitting allowance would allow landowners to alert the planning department, make immediate repairs, and apply retroactively for a permit.
While acknowledging that regulations have grown more complex since they were first adopted in 1979, he said they’ve been adapted to reflect a growing body of knowledge “about how to protect this lake that is so important to our economy, to landowner property values, to keeping historic enjoyment of the lake for future generations. As we learn more, we try to put some of those things in place.”
Jerry Whealon of Whealon Construction complained about the estimated 90 days it can take to get a project permitted and wondered why projects couldn’t be approached on a case by case basis.
“Do we need this? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. A tree is blocking your view and it takes 90 days to get a permit to cut it down?”
He also pointed out that due to lakeshore levels rising each spring, landowners often have a limited window of time to make repairs on structures that extend into the lake. The Tribes’ Shoreline Protection Office typically has a much faster turnaround for permits, he said.
“They’re tribal lakeshore only,” Murphy pointed out. “Our planning department is lakeshore, zoning, subdivisions, building notifications, floodplain … so any given time the planning staff has 30 to 40 applications on each individual desk.”
“I understand the frustration, but we can’t process 40 applications in a day,” she added.
During a typical season, the planning department processes around 100 permits for lakeshore projects alone.
“If we didn’t have regulations it would be a free for all,” said Commissioner Gale Decker.
He admits, however, that many landowners skirt the permit process completely, due to the county’s lack of enforcement capability.
“We don’t have people to tour the lakeshore and make sure people have permits,” he said, speculating enforcement would require more planning employees and additional attorneys.
“This is so complex and overreaching I fail to see a great deal of value in this,” said Ron McClellan, pointing to a section governing landscaping and the girth of firepits. “I know a lot of work has gone into this but I only recently became aware of it. The smartest, best thing to do would be to tap the brakes …”
“You have our attention now. If you have another hearing next spring, it would be a vast improvement and give a full chance for public input.”
The commissioners voted 2 to 1 to pass the resolution of intent to adopt the Lakeshore Protection Regulations amendments. The process will resume when a public notice is posted 30 days prior to the final hearing. The current and proposed regulations are available online, www.lakemt.gov, and from the planning department.