Competition for the title of largest subdivision in Ravalli County seems pretty thick these days. In early March, Hamilton's 181-unit Grantsdale Addition won unanimous approval from the county's commissioners. The subdivision's glory was short lived, however. Last week, commissioners green-lighted an even larger contender: the 551-unit FlatIron Ranch subdivision east of Hamilton. One Bitterrooter opposed to the development told us in June, "We're going to look like LA."

Maybe, maybe not. Both subdivisions come with a lengthy timeline for development. Grantsdale developer Kearns Properties LLC proposed six phases over a 20-year period, and FlatIron Ranch LLC plans to stagger its 15 phases over 30 years. Still, these 700 new homes are riding on the notion that western Montana's housing market and economy will bounce back in a decade or two from discouraging lows, a point that seems grossly speculative.

Ravalli County's Housing Affordability Index increased from 2008 to 2009, but slumped again in 2010 despite a slight bump in per capita income. A recent report from the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research states "Ravalli County remains one of the more unaffordable real estate markets in Montana."

The bureau's study, released last month, proves an interesting read alongside the recent flurry of large-scale subdivision requests in the Bitterroot. According to the report, residential sales began a steady decline after 2005, dropping from 863 to 341 in five years.

We can't help casting our eyes north for an example of how tough times have hit subdivision activity. Flathead County last year reported a dramatic dip in the number of approved lots for major and minor subdivisions—from several hundred in 2009 to a few dozen in 2010. The Flathead Valley's building industries have suffered much the same as the Bitterroot's since the recession.

We're not sure whether to applaud Ravalli County for such flagrant optimism in the face of continued hard times or criticize its officials for flouting public sentiment. Scores of citizens spoke out against the FlatIron proposal during a series of hearings from June 30 to July 12. They decried the densification of a rural area, maligned the proposed four-foot privacy fence around the development and voiced fears over the impacts on local groundwater. Even the Ravalli County Planning Board, which approved Grantsdale, voted 5-2 to recommend denial of FlatIron.

The Bitterroot has now approved the largest subdivision in the county twice in five months. If FlatIron can't hold onto the title, Hamilton really will start looking like LA.

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