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New school stadium lights take heat

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The four lights erected around the new turf field at the Big Sky School District are the object of five complaints submitted to the Gallatin County Compliance Department. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Despite opposition, several people offer support for new facility at school board meeting

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – New stadium lights installed around the Big Sky School District’s upgraded outdoor stadium have inspired both support and opposition from neighbors and the greater community.

The four lights, 70 and 80 feet tall, were installed in August as a feature of the school’s two-phase $23.5 million-project improving its outdoor athletics stadium. Though the lights exceed the height limit of 30 feet for a flat roof or 33 feet for a pitched roof set by the Board of County Commissioners, a legal exemption allowed for the school to bypass the zoning regulation.

Five complaints regarding the new lights were submitted to the Gallatin County Compliance Department via email between Aug. 31 and Sept. 7. 

“Not only are [the lights] an eyesore, they are not in compliance with County or HOA restrictions, which they are part of,” wrote one complainant who resides in the Porcupine Park neighborhood. “The lights will be a source of distracting light pollution and potentially a safety hazard for motorists on Highway 191/Gallatin Road and the surrounding area.”

Megan Gibson with the Gallatin County Compliance Department sent an investigation letter to BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman on Sept. 10 informing him of the complaints filed with the county. Gibson said her department will be taking no further action on the complaints until after public hearings regarding the matter are held.

In anticipation of an extensive public comment period, according to Shipman, the school board held its Sept. 14 meeting in the Ophir Elementary School Gym. Many parents, students, athletes and coaches filled the room and spoke up in support of the new athletic facility. Out of 14 public comments shared, 13 were in support of the new athletic facility. The sole other comment was in opposition to the school’s recently implemented mask mandate.

Mother of former and current BSSD students and resident of the Porcupine Park neighborhood Gena Gaub was one of the 13 commenters to offer her impassioned support of the new infrastructure.

“It’s very frustrating to me as a neighbor to have the neighborhood around the school at odds with the school,” she said. “I feel like as a community, we should support the growth, be excited for the growth, whether that be financially or emotionally, and when those lights flip on everyone should be heading down to the field to support our youth.” 

No one who submitted oppositional comment to the county shared comment at the school
board meeting. 

On Aug. 31, BSSD submitted an application for an exemption on the height of the lights to the Gallatin County Planning and Community Development Department demonstrating that the lights meet all other zoning regulations.

According to Montana Code, when an agency proposes to use public land contrary to local zoning regulations, a public hearing shall be held. The code also states that once the hearing is held, “The board shall have no power to deny the proposed use but shall act only to allow a public forum for comment on the proposed use.”

On April 30, 2021, Montana Legislature passed House Bill 0496, which revises this law, giving boards the power to act on proposed uses that they review. This change will take effect on Oct. 1, 2021. For all applications submitted prior to the change, they will still be reviewed under the rules and regulations in place at the date of submittal. 

The first hearing on BSSD’s application will take place on Oct. 4 at 9:30 a.m. at the Big Sky Water and Sewer District office where the Big Sky Advisory Committee will consider it and hear public comment. The second is on Oct. 14 at 9 a.m. with the Planning and Zoning Commission at the community room in the courthouse in Bozeman. 

At the Oct. 4 meeting, the advisory board can listen to public comment but will not be able to take action, according to board member Steve Johnson.

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