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Ravalli Co. cans its planning board, starts from scratch

In a quiet, rural county things sometimes just meander along and get done or get ignored without close attention to the niceties of law. Ravalli County used to be a quiet, rural county, but it isn’t anymore.

After weeks of research, no one in the county courthouse can find any evidence of a resolution that created a county planning board or of a public hearing that would have been needed to establish such a board. There are references in county records to planning board recommendations that date from the mid-1950s, but no mention of when the board was legally established.

Last week, the Ravalli County Commissioners were faced with trying to choose five new planning board members from among 25 applicants. This Tuesday, contracted county attorney Jim Mickelson told them that the lack of documentation puts the validity of the board in question.

In response, on Wednesday, the commissioners announced they will dissolve the planning board next week because it was apparently formed illegally more than four decades ago.

“I have concerns about going forward with a growth policy and all the planning that is coming up without a legally constituted board,” Mickelson said. “Any growth plan the board develops could be challenged if they are not properly empowered.”

Under Montana law, the commissioners must hold a public hearing and then pass a resolution empowering a planning board to perform certain tasks. The public is then given 60 days to protest the board formation. If the county commissioners receive a petition signed by more than 50 percent of the county’s registered voters opposing the formation, then the planning board would not come into being.

According to Commissioner Jack Atthowe, the commissioners must now start over. The former planning board will be officially dissolved and a new board will only be created after a public hearing is held in early January. All applications now on file will be retained and all planning board incumbents and interested members of the public are welcome to apply for the 11 two-year terms on the new board. Application forms are available at the county commissioners office and a deadline will be established and publicized.

A week ago, the commissioners decision to open the application process was highly controversial. For years, the incumbent planning board members were simply reappointed each year automatically. The only time a seat became vacant was when the person holding it resigned.

Planning director Tim Schwecke, incumbent planning board members and Bitterrooters for Planning opposed the open application process. Then Schwecke resigned when faced with the possibility that his office would combine with that of the county sanitarian. (The county commissioners shot down that proposal last week.) Earlier this year, planner Kevin McDonald also announced his resignation, leaving Mike Cavanaugh as the only planner in that department.

Dissolving the planning board will create a great deal more work for the county commissioners. The planning board reviewed all subdivision proposals and listened to presentations from the county planners and the developers before passing on its recommendation to the county commissioners. The commissioners have always made the final decisions, either approving or denying subdivisions.

In January the Birch Creek Acres subdivision near Stevensville is scheduled for review. That project is the largest subdivision ever proposed in Ravalli County and would add nearly 300 homes and a significant commercial area on a 100-acre stretch of land on both sides of U.S. Highway 93 near the Stevensville Wye. Without a planning board, the commissioners will have to conduct the review and subsequent public hearing on the proposal themselves.

“The planning board has always been advisory in nature but they have done a tremendous amount of legwork and research,” said Atthowe. “We will want to move as quickly as possible to satisfy the letter of the law and reestablish the board.”

Last September, the commissioners asked the board to compile a large amount of growth-related data and present it to the commissioners by Dec. 1. The commissioners said that data would help them make a decision on whether to proceed with the development of a county-wide growth policy. The planning board reviewed material compiled by the planning staff earlier in December but members could not agree on how and what to present to the commissioners. That report has not yet been delivered. With no planning board and only one planner on staff, it may be a long time before the commissioners see the material they requested.

“The county is changing,” added Commissioner Alan Thompson. “A casual way of conducting business won’t work any more. We need to be responsible.”

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