Tuesday, January 15, 2008


There are a few basic rules for passing good zoning laws:
1. If you live in a glass house, don’t make a law against glass houses.
2. No hand-me-downs: laws for big cities don’t work in small towns. City doesn’t work in country and vice versa. Laws from the north don’t necessarily work in the south. (Ecology counts.)

3. The fewer laws the better.
4. The simpler laws the better: no complex what-ifs, except-thats.
5. Don’t pass a law if there’s a better way to accomplish the purpose.
6. Laws should have a clear edge, so you can tell who’s in and who’s out.
7. Never pass a law to catch one person or to eliminate people you don’t like.
8. You can’t legislate prosperity, virtue, taste, ethnicity or loyalty.
9. Always address the DEEPEST cause and problem. Often it’s just simple poverty so be prepared to put some money into it.
10. Property value is not the highest human value.
11. The jurisdiction’s employees or commissioners are not the persons being served.
12. Contingency or complaint-driven enforcement can backfire into lawsuits quicker than a wink.

So let’s suppose we’re setting out to compose a zoning law, which is probably the least one-size-fits-all sort of law-making. First set the priorities.

1. Health and safety: dangerous substances, practices or structures.
2. Infrastructure: this is the single most important purpose of forming a community corporation or cooperative: the financing, maintenance, and operation of water and sewer, plus whatever else the community decides to take on. Streets and sidewalks. It’s important not to exceed the capacities of the people paying into the system.
3. Community morale: seasonal festivals, school support, church functions, the library, business practices and so on.
4. Interfacing with larger governmental units: state, federal, water districts, and so on.

Let’s look at the history and structure of the community. Now we can be specific. Valier was originally a marketing town with a founding population that arrived from Belgium, guided by their priest, as a pre-existing village or at least network of families who already had relationships in the Old Country. They brought along assumptions they probably didn’t know they had, like living in a village and going out to farmland rather than homesteading, which required residence. So Valier has more of a hub-and-spoke function than some places: often the older folks and those with school kids stay in town while another part of the family lives out on the farm. Since some of those farms have no water and must come to town to get it, the hub and spoke is even stronger.

But the real foundation of Valier was created by the Conrad brothers, a couple of cavalier frontiersmen who had little use for legalities and operated through cronies. With their roots in trading, including whiskey, they weren’t too particular but they were smart and hard-driving. (See Barnaby Conrad III's brilliant book, "Ghost Hunting in Montana.") First they ranched on this land. Then they pushed through Swift Dam, just as they managed to nip off a corner of the reservation for their own ranches, without much thought for the future and hardly any for the reservation. Anyway water rights would have meant something quite different in those years when the Blackfeet were living in log cabins at a subsistence level and the Rockies were packed with snow. The BIA agents never agreed among themselves whether the land should be irrigated and did a poor job of digging the canals. Today the Blackfeet are ready for big-time pivot irrigation and are rehabilitating their canals. When Swift Dam failed in 1965, killing dozens of people along Birch Creek, attention suddenly came to bear on its ownership, operation and legality, but not a lot was done beyond rebuilding the dam. Now the Winters case has put the legal ball in the resevation's court.

Swift Dam (which is at the heart of Ivan Doig’s latest novel, “The Whistling Season,” though he didn’t address the politics much since he makes it a point to avoid writing about Indians) is up in the Rocky Mountains impounding the run-off water which is then fed down to Lake Francis, a second impoundment, where it is let into canals. This water is owned by the Pondera Canal Company which is a corporation. Grain and alfalfa farmers own shares which determine how much water they can use. If there is not enough water to fulfill their shares, they take proportional percentages. If the Blackfeet claim water, it will reduce their shares even more. The best case scenario the lawyers see is a 30% reduction in available water, enough to take some farmers under economically, even if the drought breaks.

If irrigation farming crashes, then Valier will have a dim future. Already the original market and boom (when the dam was going in) town is greatly diminished, so that the town plat is zoned in terms of dividing lots according to a much larger business district. My own house lot is actually three commercially sized lots divided from street to alley rather than from side-to-side. Small shabby houses from those years still exist alongside quite fancy three and four bedroom houses.

The town has capitalized on Lake Francis as a resort property, especially for fishing including ice fishing in winter. Therefore, many people own small vacation or weekend houses in town and park camp trailers in yards or in informal camping spots. The town maintains a summer campground along the lake. As the economy gets tougher, people may be living in these tiny houses or camp trailers. Maybe because they have no other place to go.

We're getting some experimental houses: one of those concrete-poured into styrofoam blocks structures and a strange mega-ribbed quonset hut. There have always been dilemmas over house trailers, modular houses, portable houses, and so on.

Operations have sprung up just outside the city limits, sometimes with unclear implications. Feedlots, sorting corrals, acres of grain bins, and an airport where the man who used to spray crops is now making a living by selling herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer. He stores those materials on the airport and allows farmers to dilute them from his water hydrant -- a practice for which he has a permit, but which causes the farmers to drive the already dusty main street of the town in heavy trucks. No one in town is clear about who is really using the airport. Malmstrom Air Force Base? Homeland Security? Border patrol? Private parties? There is one story about a helicopter pilot whose mom lives by the airport -- he lands out there and runs home to give her a hug now and then while his "bird" idles!

Now the engineer the town asked to give formal and “scientific” feedback is saying that we need a new well and that it should be drilled out by the airport. But how much contamination might there be from aviation fuel and farm chemicals? On the other side of town are feed lots. Over the years an unfortunate tendency to postpone, deny, minimize, make exceptions, just get by, and cross fingers has developed and now runs headlong into people who have just moved to town, thinking they’d found an idyllic little cranny in an insane world. NOW they find out that we need to dig up the streets again, install water meters, and buy a new water storage tank because the present one would not be able to provide enough water to put out a major fire. This affects insurance.

In my experience this sort of train wreck cannot be “fixed” by a mayor and commissioners, no matter how expert and dedicated they are. It’s time to get out the newsprint and magic marker and to draw people into discussion. More important: LISTEN.

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