Bitterroot braces for change 

Two key aspects of the Bitterroot valley’s future—growth management and water quality—will appear on the ballot when Ravalli County voters head to the polls June 5. Besides picking three new commissioners to fill out the new five-member county commission recently enacted, voters will also decide whether to create a Ravalli County Water Quality District to monitor and protect surface and ground waters throughout the county.

The issues at stake in the three commissioner races essentially all boil down to candidates’ ideas for responding to rapid development throughout the valley. Until now, a three-member commission has governed Ravalli County—sitting commissioners are Greg Chilcott, Alan Thompson and Howard Lyons—but in November 2006 voters expanded the county’s key governing body to five members. James Rokosch, Democrat, is running against Republican Dave Hurtt in District 1; Republican Carolyn Weisbecker faces Democrat Kathleen Driscoll in District 4; and Independent Carlotta Grandstaff opposes Republican Lyons in District 5.

However, the race between Lyons and Grandstaff has taken on an added element of controversy due to a lawsuit filed May 24 that illustrates how contentious planning and growth issues have become in the Bitterroot. County Floodplain Administrator Laura Hendrix alleges that Lyons threatened Hendrix to “watch her back” after he took office in January 2007. Hendrix filed her suit after obtaining a May 23 apology from the county commission condemning Lyons’ actions; the suit also names the Bitterroot Board of Realtors, whose president is Lyons’ wife Layna Lyons, for allegedly intimidating and defaming Hendrix over her work. Lyons did not respond to a request for comment.

Grandstaff, a longtime freelance writer in the Bitterroot and a former Indy staff writer, says she’s running with the goal of adopting strong planning policies concerning zoning, impact fees and streamside setbacks to protect water quality in the wake of development.

But she says it’s not going to be easy, particularly given the divisive atmosphere: “Since I’ve been paying attention to county government for a long time, I know how difficult it is to get things done, especially in a county that’s this polarized.”
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