Bar and casino owners in Billings and Yellowstone County are very apprehensive about the impact of a revamping of zoning regulations, called Project Re-code, which is very near to being adopted by both the city and county. One owner said the code could have “traumatic consequences” for the gaming industry.

Real estate agents and builders also voiced concerns to the Billings City Council on Monday, prompting the council to postpone further action until December 14. Last week, Yellowstone County Commissioners also delayed taking action on the county’s revised codes, which differ than those being considered by the city.

Regulators have been working on rewriting the 600 plus page document for three and a half years and one of its authors, Darell Tunnicliff, questioned why it’s detractors are waiting until now to object to some of its requirements. Tunnicliff is among  a dozen or so citizens who were appointed by the City County Planning Board to completely overhaul the codes.

Nicole Cromwell, Billings Zoning Coordinator and Code Enforcement Supervisor, said that since the first hearing on November 9, her office has received many calls and emails from casino/bar owners, builders, sign companies and real estate agents with concerns. Most of the time, she said, they were mistaken in their interpretations of what was meant and clarifications on her part satisfied them.

The passage of Re-code will immediately put almost all 134 casino and bar owners in Billings out of compliance. A 600-foot distance requirement from parks, churches, schools and residents, was specifically designed to do that, in order to push such businesses into being concentrated in a few areas of the city. Cromwell said that once in force, only five casinos on Grand Avenue will be in compliance with Re-code. Non-complying businesses are “grandfathered in” until they have to rebuild or remodel for some reason.

As one owner, Fred Liske, wrote to the city council, “If a bar or casino gets destroyed by accident or disaster, it can’t rebuild as a bar or casino if it doesn’t fit the new zoning requirement.” He was among numerous gaming owners pointing out the issue, saying the requirement stands to destroy the property values, investments and livelihoods of all those involved in the business.

City Councilwoman Pam Purinton urged the council to agree to a delay to allow the Planning Department to deal with the citizens’ concerns.

Wyeth Friday, who heads the Planning Department, and a number of council people, expressed frustration with the delay saying that some of the issues they were being asked to re-examine were achieving exactly the things that those writing the codes said they wanted to do, especially those having to do with casinos.  City planners expressed concern that by entertaining the citizen’s current complaints about Re-code, the council was initiating a process that could go on for a long time and shouldn’t be encouraged.

City Councilwomen Penny Ronning  and other council people made the point that the distancing regulations were the result of safety concerns of residents located near those kinds of businesses and that those concerns were valid and just as important as business interests.

“I don’t think you can devalue private property like that,” said one casino owner,  pointing out that it would “create a skid row. You can’t put one kind of business in one area of the city.” He said he had asked for a map indicting where casinos and bars “would be allowed to locate”, but had not received one.

There were others who questioned why casinos are being targeted and whether that is a legal policy.

City Attorney Brent Brooks was asked whether the document has been reviewed for its legality, to which he replied that it has not and advised that that process needs to be done.

“We need to weigh it very carefully,” he said, “We need to look at it… and  be very careful and get it right and accurate so that property owners will know exactly what is going to happen.”

Among other concerns expressed most frequently by real estate agents was what they believed were requirements for homeowners to hire professional landscapers to landscape their property. It added to the cost of home ownership they said, and would not help housing affordability.

Cromwell said that the regulations were not directed at home owners but at developers and pertained primarily to the aesthetic requirement for trees.

Council members asked the staff to look at rewording the landscaping code since so many comments were about it, which indicated that it was not understandable.

Other issues which prompted citizen concerns had to do with garage doors and spacing for residential units, single use zoning, etc. many of which said builders would add to the cost of home ownership.


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