A compromising position 

Flathead County finally gets its growth policy

If history is any judge, the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office accomplished quite a feat on Monday, March 19. That’s when the new county growth policy, a specific plan in the works since summer 2005, received unanimous approval from the County Commissioners, and became law.

The last time Flathead County tried to write a growth policy was in 1994, and the political climate surrounding the process became so bitter that county planning staff received death threats, underwent bomb alarm training and considered buying bulletproof vests. The commissioners initially approved the policy, but in the face of mounting public backlash, they rescinded and put the plan to a public vote. It failed by a 56 to 44 percent vote.

This time around, threats of violence were avoided, but local groups feel that the compromise has exacted a heavy toll.

Even the county’s assistant planner, B.J. Grieve, who served as point man in charge of the new growth policy, admits there are problems.

“[The new policy] is not a perfect plan from a professional planning perspective,” he says. “I think what we have is a compromise document.”

Grieve argues that compromise is necessary to create a growth policy with public support, especially considering the Flathead’s history with such plans.

Grieve came to the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office in 2004, having just finished his master’s degree in geography (which included planning course work) from East Carolina University. One year into his new job, planning director Jeff Harris asked him to be point man for creating the new growth policy.

“I was so overwhelmed” at the start, says Grieve. “I was told that it would be career suicide.”

As he researched past problems and concerns, relying on conversations with community leaders and institutional knowledge from Harris and County Commissioner Joe Brenneman, Grieve put together his game plan.

“[I realized] we needed to err on the side of a ridiculous amount of public participation,” he says, adding he couldn’t just take a plan from a textbook and apply it to the Flathead. He would have to consider the human factor.

Since work on the recently approved policy began in 2005, there have been 98 public meetings. On a shelf in Grieve’s office, he has a stack of five large binders, all filled with public comments, all of which he says he has read. The planning office also created a website that provides nearly every document related to the policy’s creation, and an e-mail list of about 1,000 people who expressed interest in the policy. They receive frequent electronic updates of the process.

In addition, Grieve and his staff met with various groups and individuals in the Flathead, often those most opposed to county planning, or those who favor “smart growth.”

Among those was Russ Crowder, chairman of American Dream Montana, a Flathead property rights group strongly opposed to community planning. He was also one of those responsible for spearheading the fight against the 1994 growth policy.

“I think it is blatantly a community rights, community property document,” says Crowder of the new policy. “It’s paying lip service to protecting private property rights, but that’s all.”

According to Grieve, Citizens for a Better Flathead, a local smart growth advocate, is also dissatisfied with the policy.

(Mayre Flowers, director of Citizens, did not return calls for comment.)

While Grieve contends the plan has gotten “equal criticism from both extremes, and minimal criticism from most people,” others are leery of its validity. Jeff Larsen, a former member of the Flathead County Planning Board, worries that the compromising may have created a document in which “one section contradicts another.”

“Depending on what side of the issue you are on,” Larsen says, “you can pick and choose text to support your argument.”

In Larsen’s opinion, this will ultimately lead to more lawsuits for the county. The only bright spot, he notes, is that the county has left itself some wiggle room by giving itself a chance to amend the policy in six months to fix any glaring errors.

But Grieve, Brenneman and Harris think the massive amount of public participation on the front end of the process will help the new policy avoid any major overhaul. Grieve specifically touts how the public participation has resulted in a plan suited specifically to the Flathead and its populace.

He points to two specific examples, which deal with what are probably the most prominent aspects of any growth policy: where different levels of density will be allowed, and where commercial, industrial, residential and agricultural uses will be developed.

Grieve points specifically to the “Development Predictability Map.” As far as he knows, nothing like it has been tried in county planning.

During a series of meetings over the next year, the public will come up with parameters for growth, such as nearness to good roads, fire and police services, schools, utilities, etc. The Development Predictability Map would then show any given piece of land’s distance from these parameters. A piece of land close to schools, utilities and roads, might then be considered prime for higher-density development, while property far from these services may be deemed best suited for low-density.

By choosing the parameters themselves, Grieve says citizens have direct control over density. This, he says, was the best way to have density planning, and keep the public onboard.

As for the types of uses allowed, Grieve says that will be decided by neighborhood plans, which allow different unincorporated areas, such as Bigfork or Olney, to plan for uses in their specific areas. Grieve says this seemed the best path to take in a county the size of Connecticut, where sentiment over what uses are appropriate vary widely.

But some people believe that in tailoring the policy to public opinion, Grieve and the county ultimately created a weak growth policy. It leaves onlookers like Larsen giving only a tepid endorsement.

“It’s probably about as good as you could do,” he says, “with all the different viewpoints.”
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