Gallatin County Commission votes 3-0 to put Open Space Levy on June Ballot

The first person to testify Tuesday morning on the Open Space Levy in Gallatin County talked about Pete’s Hill. He painted the picture of how, if you looked east from the trail that ran along the top, all you would see was wheat fields until the foothills.

And while his words painted a vivid picture, I did not need one. That morning in 2004 that he was talking about started for me how many elementary school kids’ days start: biking to school. But, as Commissioner Don Seifert mentioned at the meeting Tuesday morning, Gallatin Valley is unique.

Where most kids bike on sidewalks past buildings, my sister and I biked on trails past golden fields. Which is exactly what we did that morning. It wasn’t until that afternoon that we realized something had changed.

We were biking back from Longfellow Elementary to Pete’s Hill when we saw a plume of what we thought was smoke rising from the top. Both of us immediately assumed the wheatfield must be burning. Which, of course, meant we better go investigate it.

We sped up the hill expecting to see orange flames. Instead, we saw an orange CAT. The CAT was plowing the field. Not like a tractor would, getting it ready for the next season. This machine was leveling the ground. What we thought was smoke was dirt being kicked into the air.

The field wasn’t being harvested, it was being developed.

Now, I realize that the small field on Pete’s Hill was likely never going to be a sustainable agriculture operation. It was little and surrounded by housing on many sides of it already. But, seeing it go was the first time I began to realize some of the challenges facing the community. But it was far from the last.

The second person to testify on Tuesday brought up many of the other issues facing the community, mentioning the Warming Center and how Gallatin Valley’s homeless find refuge at the Bozeman Public Library.

At this, I recalled one of my 5th-grade projects, in Ms. Cambianica’s class. I hand-wrote a 20-page story about a homeless man because the Chronicle had run a seven-day spread about the issue when the Warming Center was just getting started in this community.

That was when I learned that communities, just like life, don’t have the luxury of only having one issue at a time.

“It’s really about balance,” remarked Commissioner Joe Skinner, acknowledging that the community faces many issues.

Towards the end of Tuesday’s public comment, Marilee Brown stood. She spoke about how she advocates for trails and pathways through town so car travel does not have to be the only option.

She explained that she was not in favor of the Open Space Bonds originally but now did support the Open Space Levy because it would not only protect open space but also parks and trail development as well — something she personally advocates for.

And while she was talking, I remembered riding behind my Mom and her friends, from the south side of town to the fairgrounds. My Mom and company were all riding horses, taking advantage of the trail system through town to get to the county fair.

My best friend, sister and I were riding bikes. My own had a carriage attached that typically would carry two young toddlers. Instead, my mom had strapped a silver trash can into it, which we shoveled the horses’ poop into.

During the public comment on Tuesday about the Open Space Levy, I realized how much of my own life was tied to the issue at hand.

As Commissioner Skinner said, this isn’t about buying a pretty face. Commissioner Seifert went further to explain that this Open Space Levy is a way to preserve production agriculture and the stewardship and culture that goes with it.

View near my parents’ backyard

When I look at the wheat field that’s still behind my parents’ backyard I no longer just see beauty. It’s a reminder to be a steward of the land, to appreciate my neighbors’ hard work.

Months ago, at one of the first open space meetings, Commissioner Seifert explained that the county is a train, and you cannot move forward with only one track. Gallatin County’s open space and everything that comes with it is one of the rails to ensure that the county moves into the future with its integrity. The county cannot run on that rail alone, but it makes our community run smoother.

The Gallatin County Commissioners voted 3-0 to put the Open Space Levy on the county’s June ballot. Commissioner Steve White, who was not in favor of an Open Space Bond in August, said he favored the mill levy more than the bond because of the difference to taxpayers. The Gallatin County Treasurer’s office calculated that the mill levy will cost taxpayers less than a bond would have.

He also cited how partners to the open space program have been able to leverage taxpayers’ dollars with a 5-to-1 match.

So now, it’s up to Gallatin County whether to continue having funds for open space.

“We’re going to let the people decide,” Commissioner Seifert said.

-Andie Creel

Feature photo taken from my parents’ kitchen.

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