Ravalli County no longer has a land use plan. And given the controversy involved in creating a workable plan, it may be some time before the county has one again.
In mid-August, the Ravalli County Commissioners acted on the advice of County Attorney George Corn and attorney Jim Mickelson, and repealed the comprehensive land use plan adopted in 1981. The 18-year-old document was "outdated, vague, inconsistent and unable to withstand a court challenge as a planning document," the attorneys said.
That plan, which was the result of more than two years of heated argument and debate, was nothing more than a mission statement which listed the desires of county residents and the need to plan to achieve those goals. It was designed to be a starting point, not an ending. However, over the next two decades, no further work was ever done on it, including the reviews and revisions which were called for at three-year intervals.
So, in the past 18 years, most planning in Ravalli County has been achieved by creating a number of voluntary zoning districts; the county now has 35. Most of the districts were formed in protest to some proposed action and included land owned by people who did not agree with the majority of the other home owners about land use issues. Only 60 percent of the property owners within a district are required to agree before petitioning the county for such a zoning district, and the criteria is "one property owner, one vote." It is not based on the amount of property owned.
In three cases-a resort business on Lost Horse Creek, a proposed subdivision on Burnt Fork Creek, and a gravel pit in Eagle Watch-business owners sued the county and won because of restrictions placed on their activities by the voluntary zoning districts in which they were unwilling participants. Because of those court decisions, the county no longer agrees to enforce the zoning district regulations, so that burden falls on the district residents.
Over the years there have been a number of attempts to create a new plan for Ravalli County. In 1994-95, the county planning office and groups of interested citizens met twice monthly to draft a detailed comprehensive plan spelling out specific regulations for urban growth, suburban growth, subdivisions, agriculture, housing, recreation, etc. The groups were often in disagreement over the resulting documents and, in the end, the plan was scrapped by the county commissioners before it was completed.
But the county did pass a set of subdivision regulations based on similar state subdivision regulations in 1997. Those are required when developers apply for a subdivision permit. However, those regulations do not address where subdivisions may or may not be located, even here, in Montana's fastest-growing county.
In late 1997, Ravalli County planners started working on a new planning document, "Vision 2020." Like the 1981 plan, Vision 2020 was a series of statements of goals for the county regarding subdivisions, clean air and water, development along Highway 93, agriculture, recreation and the river corridor. In this case, the preamble gave the planning office authority to enact regulations to achieve those goals, using a public review process. Vision 2020 was put to a vote in 1998-and was defeated by a 2 to 1 margin.
But whatever is developed this time, the county commissioners may be willing to accept responsibility for its passage. At the meeting in which the 1981 plan was repealed, Thompson stressed that the county has a representative form of government and he believes the commissioners must make the final decision. Both Commissioner Jack Atthowe and Commissioner Smut Warren have stated they would consider adopting a new plan if that plan met with public approval.
"If the planning board puts something together that passes muster by the commissioners, they will pass it-unless they get tremendous opposition," said Atthowe.
The commissioners will spend next Monday and Tuesday in meetings, developing an outline of direction for the planning board to follow with a list of goals and objectives. The planning board will meet at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15, to consider those directions.
When the commissioners repealed the earlier plan, they told county planning director Tim Schwecke to have the planning board start work on a new plan. However, the planning board, worn out from other unsuccessful efforts, would not consider such work until they have a proposed outline of what the commissioners actually want.
"They would also like assurances that we will pass whatever they send us," Atthowe said. "We can't promise that. We will evaluate whatever they do, but we can't just give it carte blanche approval."
Some concerns that must be factored into any future plan will include the proposed "right to farm" ordinance that is now being drafted in reaction to the continued urbanization of this formerly rural county. Plus, the Ravalli County Airport and any possible future expansion must also be considered. When expansion was considered in 1997, it faced major opposition, but pilots and other airport users are circulating a petition that asks the county commissioners to support future improvements to what is now Montana's busiest non-commercial airfield. Finally, county road supervisor Mike Wiles is preparing a list of concerns about how to deal with more roads and more traffic.
"Should there be county-wide zoning? If so, where and how? That's the big issue," Atthowe said.
Regardless of the answer, the next planning board meeting should set the stage for new focus groups, as well as a time frame for public comment on any new plan. So it's not over yet. "The public will have plenty of opportunity for input as this develops," he said.