Planning the new year in Bitterroot 

The exit of one politician from elected office and the entrance of another may attract a little pomp-and-circumstance, but rarely is any genuine issue at stake in the transition.

But the impending departure of Ravalli County Commissioner Jack Atthowe and the imminent arrival of commissioner-elect Greg Chilcott—who begins his six-year term in 2003—have given Bitterroot Valley residents on all sides of the land-use planning debate more anxiety than Yuletide cheer this holiday season.

Centering the controversy is an 85-page growth policy drafted by the Planning Board during 2002 and delivered to the Board of County Commissioners in mid-December. Although the policy is more of a philosophical statement than a regulatory document, residents view it one of two ways: Either the policy offers salvation from long-time problems such as gravel pits in the middle of suburban neighborhoods, or it’s a harbinger of bad things to come, like restrictions on how property can be subdivided and developed. And so hundreds of people packed rooms in the courthouse before and after Christmas trying to influence whether the policy will come to a vote under Atthowe, before the New Year, or under Chilcott after.

Atthowe and Chilcott, in either case, will have only one vote each on the three-person board, but the two men couldn’t be more different.

Atthowe would like to make the policy his legacy. Atthowe, a Democrat and former UM psychology professor, has supported progressive land-use planning during both of his terms. And since the Planning Board delivered the policy, he has been urging the other two members of his board, both of whom are Republicans and one of whom is married to a real estate agent, to review it, amend it, and vote on it as soon as possible. They have been less than expeditious.

A few days after Christmas, Atthowe said he would spend the weekend before the New Year drafting an “impassioned” speech in support of the policy, to be delivered during the final meeting of his tenure.

Chilcott, on the other hand, campaigned specifically against such a maneuver. Chilcott hangs his hat on a non-binding vote in the 2000 primary election, in which citizens indicated by an overwhelming margin that they’d prefer to vote on the policy themselves. He sees that vote as a mandate for county government to await another public straw poll, and predicts that passing the policy now will only inflame opposition and provoke a recall initiative on the 2004 primary ballot. And so it’s Auld Lang Syne, another contentious moment in the land-use planning debate, for residents of the Bitterroot Valley. Only time—and not much left of it—will tell.

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