By Katie Morrison, photo by Reid Morth

About a dozen Big Sky stakeholders have come together with the goal of creating a non-taxing Big Sky Parks, Trails, and Recreation District that would include most Big Sky properties except those accessed from Highway 191.

There have been a couple of previous park district efforts in Big Sky over the years, but quirky old park district laws and local politics have overpowered those efforts, and today there is no park district on the Gallatin County side of Big Sky, and only a small three square mile park district in Big Sky/Madison County which has taxing authority but has never been activated and has never levied taxes since its creation in 1988. Current park district law has been amended and no longer has the oddities of previous laws.

This park district effort was sparked into action last November when a group of residents from the Madison Valley proposed creating a taxing Madison Valley Park and Recreation District using the Ennis School District boundary. The first task for the Big Sky group was to unanimously and strongly oppose the proposed Madison Valley district because, if it passed by a vote of the electorate as proposed in May, the majority of the tax revenue would have come from Big Sky/Madison County properties to be used for park and recreation improvements and programs in the Ennis and Madison Valley area. This didn’t seem right when there are countless park, trail, and recreation needs right here in Big Sky, and access by Big Sky taxpayers to any improvements in Ennis/Madison Valley would require a 4+ hour round trip drive around the mountains. Additionally, their exhaustive research, which included several trips to Virginia City, uncovered an existing, three square mile Big Sky Park District that was created with taxing authority in 1988, but was never activated, never levied any tax, and faded from memory until recently. It was ultimately the discovery of this existing district that led the Madison County Commission to repeal a December 2010 resolution that would have put the Madison Valley Park and Recreation District to a vote this May.

In February, after the proposed Madison Valley district was no longer under consideration, the Big Sky group began the second phase of its work by doing the due diligence and research to answer the many legal/process questions about how to create a new non-taxing Big Sky Parks, Trails, and Recreation District in Big Sky when the community has the dual-county issue and an existing Big Sky Parks District to deal with. They found that state law dictates that park districts cannot cross county lines, so they are proposing to create a new parks, trails, and recreation district on the Gallatin County side of Big Sky, expand the boundary and strip all taxing authority from the existing three square mile district on the Madison County side of Big Sky, and ask the Commissioners to adopt an interlocal agreement to allow one joint board of directors to administer both districts. It appears that they can accomplish this administratively (without a vote of the electorate) given cooperation from each County Commission – due in large part because the districts would be non-taxing. Even without taxing authority, these districts will have the ability to apply for grant moneys from a variety of sources that would be aimed at enhancing parks, trails, and recreation in Big Sky.

Their plan is to require that future board members be a resident of either Madison or Gallatin County, and either own property or be a resident of one of the Districts. It seems to make sense to have the County Commissioners initially appoint the board for simplicity, but then after a specified period of time the board should be voted into office by the electorate in the new districts.

The Big Sky Parks, Trails, and Recreation Districts are being proposed now in order to establish these district boundaries to preclude any potential future efforts by other groups to include Big Sky in a bigger park district. If the Big Sky community doesn’t take this step now, others will and any tax money will likely be invested outside of the Big Sky community. If the community is successful in creating the two Big Sky Parks, Trails, and Recreation Districts, it will prevent other entities from creating another district over the same area.

Questions have arisen about possible changes in the role of the Big Sky Community Corporation (BSCC) if these new park districts are created. After some discussion, it seems that there are many ways in which the two groups can work together to enhance efforts to build and maintain parks, trails and recreational infrastructure in Big Sky. Research indicates that the two entities will have unique strengths and unique qualifications for various grants (one being a 501 (c)3 and the other being a governmental County Park District), and that the community would be best served by having both entities in place.

We encourage you to attend a public informational meeting on the Big Sky Parks, Trails, and Recreational District on Monday April 25 at 1 p.m. in the basement of the Big Sky Chapel. Questions are welcome and encouraged. If you would like more information, please call Katie Morrison of the Big Sky Community Corporation at (406) 570-0096, or email her at katie@bsccmt.org.