Ravalli hangover 

Like cheap champagne, Ravalli County’s new growth policy just doesn’t carry the same buzz now that the New Year’s Eve party is over.

On Dec. 31, commissioners passed the policy, which was three years in the making and had been championed by outgoing Commissioner Jack Atthowe. But on Jan. 2, newly installed Commissioner Greg Chilcott, who campaigned last year on a promise to roll the policy out for a public vote, joined the board.

That handed the majority back to Commissioner Betty Lund, who voted against the policy, and left Commissioner Alan Thompson, the only unconditionally supportive member on the now-all-Republican board, outnumbered. The turn-of-the-year shuffling of the three-person board increases the likelihood of a repeal vote, though as of press deadline, no such motion had been placed on the county agenda.

The 85-page document doesn’t include any specific land-use rules, but is a required precursor to any revision of subdivision regulations in one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties.

The short life expectancy of the policy is due in part to the presence of surveyor and citizen activist Terry Nelson, who wields influence like an un-elected fourth member of the board when it comes to land-use planning.

Three years ago, Nelson led a pro-development group on a successful petition drive to put an initiative on the primary ballot. The outcome of that ballot measure was non-binding, but voters indicated by an 80-20 margin that they preferred any growth policy be approved at the polls, not inside the courthouse.

Nelson says his group hasn’t met in over a year, but that they are prepared to go ahead with the referendum process and put a recall measure on the ballot for the 2004 primary.

Because Nelson represents a daunting constituency, considering his group’s history of signature gathering and success in the voting booth, the commissioners take him seriously.

Chilcott and Lund say they’re prepared to consider repealing the policy already. Chilcott says he’s trapped between his campaign promise and what he describes as a good final draft. The problem, he says, is not the policy, but that uninformed voters will reject it.

“We need to step back and slow down,” Chilcott says. “We rushed the last part of this process, which was the education of the people.”

Lund agrees and adds that she specifically wants to tailor the policy to satisfy the interests of farmers and ranchers.

“My gut reaction is that we ought to go back to the all-valley focus group and see if we can fix some of the problems,” Lund says.

Meantime, Thompson likes to tell a parable about the responsibility of being an elected official. In the story, he’s at a high school football game trying to convince someone to attend public meetings on the growth policy.

“He laughed and said, ‘That’s why I voted for you,’” Thompson says. “So I said, ‘What if I do something you don’t like?’ And he said ‘That’s when we don’t vote for you again.’”

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