HAMILTON – The Ravalli County Commission voted unanimously Monday to approve new floodplain regulations that do away with the prohibition on residential home construction in flood fringe areas along the Bitterroot River that’s been in place for nearly two decades.
Instead, the commission established a permit system with 14 criteria that homebuilders will have to meet before moving forward with projects in that portion of the floodplain that board members claimed would be stricter than what was already in place.
The vote followed four daylong meetings at which the commission heard a good deal of information about the Bitterroot River’s unique ability to make dramatic changes in course from year to year.
The commission was required to formally accept new floodplain maps and approve updated floodplain regulations by Friday in order to meet a federal deadline that allows county residents to obtain federally subsidized flood insurance.
The new floodplain maps include areas in the east and west forks of the Bitterroot River and in the Three Mile area that have not been regulated before under county floodplain regulations.
Early on, the commission’s proposal to adopt model floodplain regulations written by the state and allowing residential construction in the flood fringe created a stir in a county that had some of the strictest floodplain regulations in Montana.
The commission was encouraged by representatives from the Bitterroot Conservation District, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Clark Fork Coalition, Trout Unlimited, local fishing guides and outfitters, and others to retain regulations that prohibited residential building in the flood fringe without a variance.
“All submitted credible evidence and relevant data about the harm that would occur to people, private property and the local economy if homes and septics were allowed in the flood fringe,” said former commissioner Carlotta Grandstaff. “This river is an economic driver in this community. You heard evidence-based testimony that the fly-fishing economy alone brings in $28 million annually to this community, and yet you said you would not consider it."
“That surely makes you the only elected Republicans anywhere in the United States who would disregard a multimillion-dollar clean, local industry,” she said.
People testified that there hadn’t been a variance request to build in the flood fringe in 10 years.
They also pointed out the 1995-vintage FEMA floodplain maps the county was being asked to approve included more than 30 places where the Bitterroot River has already encroached into areas designated as flood fringe on the maps.
The flood fringe is the portion of the designated floodplain that is outside the floodway where floodwaters are typically relatively stagnant.
Commissioner J.R. Iman said the new maps added about 400 acres of floodplain designation on the east and west forks of the Bitterroot and in the Three Mile area.
There were about 200 homeowners impacted by the expanded floodplain designation, while other landowners suddenly found themselves outside the floodplain after being included the last time the maps were updated, he said.
There are lots of problems with the floodplain designation system, Iman said. The last time the county addressed it by deciding to deny residential construction inside the flood fringe without a variance.
During public comment at the recent floodplain hearings, Iman said a number of people said there were places currently designated as flood fringe in the new maps where residential construction could occur without problems. There were other places where building should never occur, he said.
“We have the ability to do a better job this time around,” he said. “Permits give us the opportunity to add restrictions that weren’t there before, as well as modify the statement made 20 years ago that it can’t be done. We have the opportunity to make this better.”
The commission included a number of recommendations to its permit review criteria offered Monday by FWP fisheries biologist Chris Clancy.
It also included a process for setting up an advisory board that would review the permit applications. The board would seek to include an engineer, hydrologist, floodplain property owner and conservation representative.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said the board’s review process would include a public meeting where the public could get involved.
“Clearly, we heard some concerns about the public process,” Chilcott said. “Having an advisory board ... will give us a good broad set of eyes to look over an application and help the floodplain manager.”
The new floodplain regulations will be reviewed by both state and federal officials. If approved, they will become effective Jan. 16.