Counties and tribes seek commonground 

The Lake County Planning Department and Planning Board have begun the process of revising the county’s official growth policy. Unlike the minor update performed in 1995, it’s a far-reaching project that will encompass nearly every aspect of land use and related economics, will have much of its content shaped by public opinion, and will likely take several years to complete.

In those respect, Lake County’s situation is no different from that of many other counties preparing to embark on similar projects. What does make the county’s situation unique, however, is this: Its planners have invited the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which govern the Flathead Indian Reservation, to participate in the process.

The county and the tribes will retain their own separate policies, but their goal is to find some common ground. “We’re willing to work with them and we’re exploring ways in which we can cooperate,” explains Dave DeGrandpre, senior planner for Lake County.

What makes this especially interesting, he says, is that nowhere in the state planning statutes—including the comprehensive Senate Bill 97 passed by the Legislature earlier this year—are there any criteria to explain how this county-tribal cooperation should take place.

According to Kelly Shields, planner for the Community Technical Assistance Program in Helena, there is only one other instance of such a cooperative effort: Bighorn County, which is working with the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes. But they, too, have just begun the process.

“There are no guidelines,” says DeGrandpre, “so we’re basically defining the process as we go. Obviously, the tribes are a major presence in the county, so we’d like to be able to reflect some of their values and concerns in our policy.”

To that end, the county recently sent preliminary drafts of its new growth policy to the Tribal Council for its input. More importantly, a technical oversight committee, composed of three tribal representatives and three county representatives, was formed earlier this year and has already begun reviewing the document. One potential stretch of common ground they’ve been discussing is the 1.5-mile buffer strip along the western edge of the Mission Mountains which the tribes created in 1987 to protect the area’s environmental and cultural values. DeGrandpre says the county may be able to incorporate this same buffer zone into its own growth policy.

As discussions with the tribes continue, DeGrandpre is preparing to get the entire population of Lake County involved in the process. Copies of the growth policy will be available soon, followed by numerous presentations and public meetings, and hopefully a web site.

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