Environmental groups wants closer look at glamping resort

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Eight environmental groups have submitted a petition to the Gallatin County Planning Board and Director requesting a more robust evaluation of a controversial development in Montana's Gallatin Gateway.

The groups are asking the board and director to formally determine whether the Riverbend Glamping Resort, a proposed vacation destination along the Gallatin River, must be reviewed as a subdivision.

Subdivision review would require the planning department to ensure the project meets stringent state and local regulations before it could be built.

The planning department previously determined the resort didn’t need to go through subdivision review, said Sean O’Callaghan, the planning director. The department made this decision through a standard administrative process that didn’t involve the planning board or a written decision.

O’Callaghan has sent the group’s petition to the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office for review.

The county has yet to determine whether it will issue a formal decision on whether the Riverbend Glamping Resort must be looked at as a subdivision.

Jeff Pfeil, who is behind the project, told the Bozeman Chronicle the petition is unfounded.

“There is no basis to this appeal if they look carefully at the rules and at our project and what we’re proposing,” he said.

The Riverbend Glamping Resort, located just west of the Mill Street bridge in Gallatin Gateway, will include campsites with Airstream trailers, Conestoga wagons and tiny homes for rent, according to the permit application.

The sites will have access to water from a well on the property, electricity from lines along Gateway South Road and wastewater and natural gas service from pipelines placed under the Gallatin River.

A gravel road will also be constructed to link the development to Gateway South Road.

The groups behind the petition — Upper Missouri River Waterkeeper, Montana Trout Unlimited, Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana, Simms Fishing Products, Protect the Gallatin River, Madison-Gallatin Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and Greater Yellowstone Coalition — are hoping the planning department determines the Riverbend Glamping Resort meets the state and county requirements for subdivision review.

They argued the glampground would “include infrastructure identical to that traditionally required for a Montana small subdivision.”

They also said the resort is a subdivision because “subdivision is defined as an area, regardless of its size, that provides or will provide spaces for rent or lease on which camping vehicles or mobile homes will be placed.”

If the planning department were to consider the Riverbend Glamping Resort as a subdivision, the project would go through a review that includes an environmental assessment and an opportunity for public comment.

Wade Fellin, with the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, said subdivision review is an important process that the planning department should go through.

“I think it’s actually a great idea to have people come and visit and enjoy and respect the beauty of Montana’s rivers. In fact, our economy is largely based on that opportunity for folks to come and be a part of Montana’s outdoors,” Fellin said. “But we have to do that in the right way and that’s what these laws are intended to do.”

Fellin said he and the other groups behind the petition don’t yet know what steps they will take if the planning department chooses not to review the resort as a subdivision.

“I can’t speak to that prematurely,” he said. “…But we feel with the petition that we’ve laid out that the planning board will make the right decision.”

Although the planning department has so far decided not to review the resort as a subdivision, it has determined the development, much of which lies within the 100-year floodplain, requires a floodplain permit.

The floodplain permit application is now under review.

“This petition and encouragement for people to express their support for it has created considerable confusion,” said O’Callaghan, the planning director. “Numerous people have submitted substantive comments about the proposed project since last Friday when the public comment period in fact closed Dec. 28, 2020.”

He added that the letters he has received about the petition are unlikely to sway the county.

“The subdivision question is a narrow legal question and supporting or not supporting a petition is unlikely to have any influence on the answer to that legal question,” he said.

The Riverbend Glamping Resort has faced significant opposition from Gallatin Gateway landowners as well as local and national nonprofit groups who are concerned the development could harm the river.

Pfeil, the developer, said the resort is less impactful than other developments could be.

“What I feel like has been overlooked by a lot of our opposition, or all of our opposition, is the fact that the property has no zoning, it has no covenants, it has sewer and water and it has 2.66 acres not in the floodplain or the floodway. That is developable ground for a host of other uses that would be very undesirable for these people that are against us,” Pfeil said.

He also said he is committed to conserving the river and has long planned to offer educational programs at the resort focused on topics like clean rivers.

“We’re very, very passionate about preserving the environment and we fully intend to have people there talking about the environment and doing little things like campfire sessions with kids to talk about it and having things like a fly tying class with a little piece ... in there about maintaining the river, please pick up trash when you’re out there and being a good steward of the land because it’s (about) more than just tying a fly,” Pfeil said.

Pfeil will likely need several other permits before he can build the resort.

He may need authorization from the Gallatin Conservation District to alter a waterway and pond on the property.

The district recently determined the waterway and pond on the property are “a natural, perennial flowing stream.” The conclusion means Pfeil must have a permit from the district before he can change the waterway and pond.

Pfeil said he plans to appeal the conservation district’s decision to Gallatin County District Court.

NorthWestern Energy has also applied to the county for a floodplain permit to place a natural gas pipeline under the river for the resort. O’Callaghan said he is reviewing that application.

Last year, the planning department gave conditional approval to Pfeil for construction of a sewer force main and fiber optic line under the Gallatin River, which would connect his property to the Gallatin Gateway Water and Sewer District. A nearby landowner has appealed the decision to the Gallatin County Commission.