Ready, set, goad! 

The Flathead tries again for a growth plan

The last time Flathead County tried to write a land-use master plan, planning office staff received death threats, underwent bomb-scare training and considered buying bulletproof vests.

No one’s dusted off the bomb-scare manuals yet, but lines have been drawn in the battle over the coming master plan document, which state statute requires to be completed by October 2006, and the rhetoric is already heating up.

Russ Crowder, a former member of the Flathead County Planning Board and founder of Flathead property rights group American Dream Montana, says he would like to keep things cool this time and avoid a repeat of 1994, at which time he was a member of Montanans for Property Rights. When the dust settled in ’94, no bombs had gone off, but the plan on which the county spent years and about $500,000 was ultimately rejected by voters, throwing the county back to reliance on an original master plan developed in the mid-’80s.

Crowder says that killing a plan before it’s even born is not in his interest. But “there are groups that would view that as the best of outcomes,” Crowder admits, explaining that if the Flathead cannot come up with a plan by the state’s deadline, future growth will be severely limited. According to deputy county attorney Jonathan Smith, all zone and plan changes would be put on hold, by state mandate, until a plan was completed. That result, according to Crowder, would play into the hands of pro-planning groups such as Citizens for a Better Flathead. He feels the best way to avoid a meltdown this time around is to “keep the politics out of it.”

But with an issue as contentious as growth, it’s hard to resist politicking.

Crowder and American Dream Montana gave in to the temptation June 14 with a full-page advertisement in the Daily Inter Lake. The ad was topped with photos of Flathead County commissioners Gary Hall and Joe Brenneman, the words “Growth Policy Hijacked” in big orange letters between the two. Beneath that, the ad accused the commissioners of taking control of writing the new plan away from the county planning board and handing it to the Collins Group, a Colorado-based consulting firm, and “commissioner Hall’s heavily bureaucratic Long Range Planning Task Force.” It went on to name specific members of the task force and connect them to liberal, smart-growth causes. The ad invited the general public to a meeting that night, at which several presentations on planning issues were given.

“Sometimes you have to rattle the cage to get attention,” Crowder said of his group’s ad.

And, Crowder said, he wasn’t the first one to go political—he’s just reacting to the politicking begun, in his opinion, when smart-growth advocates were named to the Long Range Planning Task Force. He says that many Task Force members support impact fees, which, he says, is so contentious an issue it could derail the plan by itself. Crowder says planning should be left to the county planning board.

But politics are nothing if not contradictory. Don Hines, president of the planning board, says that neither the task force nor the Collins Group has taken any authority away from the board. In fact, he says, the board had long needed an outside consulting firm, simply to help them analyze the reams of information that go into making a plan, but that they didn’t have the support of previous county planning director Forrest Sanderson. Sanderson left the department this winter to take a job with the Montana Department of Natural Resources. New director Jeff Harris started June 21, and in conjunction with county commissioners Brenneman and Hall, gave the board what they’d asked for. The Flathead’s third commissioner, Bob Watne, who was elected the same year the 1994 plan was rejected, voted against employing the Collins Group, saying that an outside planning group was part of the problem with the last plan.

But Hines remains firm that the Collins Group and the task force are only helping to process information. The planning board will have as much say in the final master plan as they’ve always had, according to Hines, and in the end, the commissioners will have final say.

“They can slice it, they can dice it, they can throw it back,” Hines says of county commissioners’ control of the master plan.

Hines does concede that the Task Force houses left-leaning members, but thinks that “the left wing in this county has stepped forward and shown a whole different way of doing things. I’ll give them the benefit of a doubt all the way to Sunday.”

Hines believes Crowder and his organization are being intentionally dishonest. The Flathead’s right wing, he says, is “getting people stirred up with just enough information to make them dangerous.”

But Hines also says he has “tremendous respect for Crowder,” with whom he worked on the planning board. He hopes that Crowder will eventually come to the table with other groups on the master plan.

Between now and October 2006, Hines says the best way to avoid a repeat of 1994 is to get as much public involvement as possible—which Hines claims the board is trying to do.

“We are constantly promoting this thing,” Hines says. “That did not happen with the 1994 plan.”

Harris, the new county planning director, is on the same page. “We’re going to get out and engage the public. They’ll have an active role.”

Harris may not yet know just how important his job is. He moved to Kalispell from Las Vegas June 19 and claims to be unaware of how contentious the last plan became, or of the fact that there were threats of violence.

“I didn’t hear that,” he says. “Is that true?”

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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