Ravalli County finally moves on a growth policy 

The grandstands at the Ravalli County fairgrounds always fill for monster truck rallies or bull-o-ramas, but luring people to public meetings to plan their neighborhood’s future is considerably more difficult.

But hope springs eternal in the hearts of urban planners, and Ravalli County’s would-be planners have state law on their side.

Ravalli County’s perennial attempts to plan for population growth have traditionally lead to 11th-hour sabotage by fierce opponents of land use planning. But four years ago the Montana Legislature mandated that every county must have a growth policy in place, and Ravalli County commissioners have finally followed up on that mandate by passing a resolution in support of a policy.

The trick now is to write one.

Last spring the commissioners allocated $95,000 for planning efforts, the first time the county has allocated tax money for such an endeavor. Of that, $60,000 has been earmarked for the consulting services of Gallatin County planner Dale Beland.

Though Beland has been to Ravalli County only twice this year, planning board Vice-Chairman Sonny LaSalle says taxpayers are getting their money’s worth from him in the form of training and document review—mostly done long distance. As LaSalle points out, Ravalli County has not been able to attract qualified applicants for the two planning positions that have been open all year.

The county’s reputation preceded it at a national seminar held by the American Planning Association earlier this year in New Orleans, where western Montana—and Ravalli County in particular—were mentioned as “career-ending venues” for professional planners.

But LaSalle says the difference between past efforts and this one is that state law cannot be thwarted much longer. He says the county’s lawyer is still researching the penalty for failure to adhere to the new law, but some things are clear: Popular, citizen-supported local ordinances that govern such urban blight as cell phone towers and billboards cannot be enacted in counties that do not have growth policies in place, and voluntary neighborhood zoning districts, a well-used planning method in Ravalli County, will no longer suffice under current law.

“Qwest almost took the county to court over [the citizen-supported cell tower ordinance],” notes LaSalle. “Who knows what would have happened if they’d gone to court.”

Though Ravalli county’s planning board has tried to include even diehard planning opponents, LaSalle won’t be surprised to see another last-minute disinformation blitz like the ones that have marred past efforts. “If there are people who are bound to sabotage something ... you’re probably not going to change their minds.”

A final planning document is expected by September 2002.

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