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The Gallatin County Commission voted unanimously against reducing setbacks along a ditch south of Belgrade on Tuesday, putting preliminary approval of a high-density housing development on hold.

The proposed development, known as the West River 40 subdivision, would have 347 single-family lots condensed into just over 166 acres west of Thorpe Road and south of West Central Valley Road.

The commission did not vote for or against the preliminary plat, however. It instead gave developers a continuance with no certain date for another meeting to review the plat again.

The density of the development and the fate of Thorpe Road, along with the Bopp-McCullough Ditch that runs on its east side, were hotly debated topics. Over 20 people provided public comment — none of which were in support of the development — both virtually or in-person at the Gallatin County Courthouse.

Developments that occur near or over water conveyance facilities, like the Bopp-McCullough Ditch, need a plan from the developers to reduce negative impacts from the development onto the ditch, according to Gallatin County’s subdivision regulations.

Finding out what those impacts would be proved difficult for the developer.

Chad Larson, the owner of the 3 Peaks Development, said that up to four notices were sent to the various water right holders along the Bopp-McCullough Ditch, some of whom live across 20 states. Many did not respond, he said.

When water rights owners do not respond, or the developers are not in agreement with the water rights holders, a default setback of 50 feet protecting the ditch is put in place, according to Gallatin County’s subdivision regulations.

The developer requested a reduction in the setback to 7 feet where bridges would cross the ditch, according to documents from the meeting.

Those who did respond to 3 Peaks Development were not in favor of the setback reduction.

DJ Brask, the majority water rights owner for the Bopp-McCullough Ditch, commented that the issue between the developer and the ditch owners should not be up to the county to decide.

He said that if the commission approved the developer’s request or a setback, that the change would “encumber not only our water rights,” but also the the ditch owners’ “rights to maintain our ditch.”

The commissioners agreed that the the decision should be ironed out between the two parties, specifically more correspondence from the water rights owners. However, they were concerned that by voting against the setback, it could give the impression that water rights owners, and water conveyance facilities, took precedence over other matters like transportation networks.

Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said that he was concerned that by voting against the setback reduction, water rights owners would see it as a way of preventing developments like the West 40 River subdivision from occurring to ensure that nothing happened to water conveyance facilities like the Bopp-McCullough Ditch.

“And if we continue with that we have no transportation system, we have no public health and safety consideration,” MacFarlane said. “It means water user facility needs come above all other needs.”

Commenters from the Gallatin Heights subdivision were against the proposed high-density subdivision because it could be too dense. Many said that the proposed subdivision would not mesh with their subdivision, which has just over 340 single-family homes across 319 acres.

Larson, owner of 3 Peaks Development, said that high-density housing was a “hard pill to swallow,” but the answer to many concerns that commenters held about uncontrolled sprawl that could stem from the development.

“I understand that density is not what you think about when you move to Montana, but to stop that sprawl and to save the character that so many people showed up here today to talk about, density is the answer to that,” Larson said.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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