Board views request as spot zoning


In a special Miles City Zoning Commission meeting Wednesday to make a recommendation on John Peila’s request for a zoning change, the commission discussed the pros and cons but found, in the end, that a Montana Supreme Court ruling on spot zoning made the decision for them.

Peila has requested a zone change from Agricultural to General Commercial for approximately 29 acres of land on Highway 59 South. He planned to build a plant for his Diamond J Construction business and had begun a foundation, saying he was unaware of the need for a zoning change to the ground just outside of city limits.

After considerable discussion on economic development in the Miles City area, which is restricted by geographic features, committee members voted to recommend against the zone change because of the ruling by the court in 1981.

Chairperson Amber Trenka and members Nancy Mitchell, Muriel Rost and Leif Ronning all expressed how difficult the decision was.  Ronning stated that he found “all the concerns on both sides to be very legitimate.” Mitchell described the position of the board as “between a rock and a hard place.”

The difficulty arose because spot zoning is illegal in the state of Montana and the zoning request met all three criteria, defined by the Supreme Court, of spot zoning.  

The board made frequent references to the “Little factors,” in reference to Little versus the Flathead County Commissioners. In appeal to the Supreme Court from that case, three factors were set out as creating illegal spot zoning.  Mitchell read from a report created by the city’s zoning consultant, Dave DeGrandpre, ACIP.

The first factor is, does the zone change create use that is “significantly different” land use than prevailing land use.  Commercial use, as defined in code, is considerably different from agricultural use, with commercial zoning allowing a much broader use of the land.

The second factor involved two criteria. The first is, does the land proposed for the rezone make up a relatively small amount of land zoned agricultural around it. Peila’s request is for less than 30 acres in an area where over 1,000 acres are zoned agricultural. The second criteria states “would granting the zoning map amendment amount to preferential treatment for one or a few persons as against the general public. DeGrandpre’s report stated that “General commercial zoning for this property or the immediate area is not called out in an adopted planning document like a growth policy or neighborhood plan.  Changing the zoning to General Commercial would clearly benefit one landowner. . .because general commercial allows virtually any commercial use of the property. The Agricultural designation is quite limited.”

The third factor asks, “Would the zoning map amendment constitute special legislation or preferential treatment designed to benefit only one or a few landowners at the expense of the surrounding landowners and the general public?”

DeGrandpre’s report concludes, “It is not clear the surrounding land owners would benefit in any way. . .What is clear is only one landowner would benefit, as opposed to the public in general or the surrounding land owners in particular.”

The remaining members of the board also voted to recommend against the zone change, citing the Little ruling.

Other issues discussed at the meeting included the county’s lack of direct participation in zoning outside the city limits and the city’s outdated Growth Policy. The city’s Growth Policy, which was completed in 2006, only covers expansion of the city to the south and east in vague terms without specifics as to the type of land uses permitted.

The board will send a written recommendation to the City Council, which will make the final decision.

After the board concluded with the Peila request, they set a time for a public hearing on property owned by Brad Certain, which is adjacent to Peila’s property, requesting a change from Agricultural to Industrial. Certain stated he planned to sell the property.

That public hearing will be held Wednesday, May 28, at City Hall at 6 p.m.