Growth tightrope 

Citizens question new Flathead policy

What Flathead smart-growth group Citizens for a Better Flathead would like to see in the draft Flathead Growth Policy more than anything else is some teeth, and maybe a little backbone.

But you’d be hard-pressed to get Citizens Director Mayre Flowers, whose very name evokes her distaste for inflammatory rhetoric, to put it quite that way.

Instead, Flowers notes that the draft policy, which was released to the public June 30 for comment, “does not provide the detail appropriate to address the level of growth we are experiencing.”

Specifically, Flowers points out that the policy contains no plan to address parks and recreation issues, transportation issues, preservation of agricultural lands and open space, encouraging growth near existing infrastructure, or a host of other growth-related issues.

So-called property rights groups, most notably American Dream Montana, have also been critical of the draft policy, but for different reasons, most founded in opposition to planning and zoning regulations in general. Their concerns have been made public in articles in the Daily Inter Lake, the Independent and dozens of advertisements the group has placed locally. In 1994, property rights advocates in the Flathead Valley were able to shut down an attempt to create a new growth policy to replace the one originally drafted in 1987, which remains in effect today.

B.J. Grieve, an assistant planning director for the Flathead Planning and Zoning office, oversaw creation of the latest draft growth policy.

Grieve notes that while he appreciates any and all comments on the draft policy, he felt compelled to deal with certain “political realities” in trying to craft a workable document.

“You don’t want to sell out and write a crappy document just to have it approved, but you don’t want to create a document that has no chance of getting approved,” he says. “It was a tightrope walk.”

In order to draft a meaningful growth plan that also stood a chance of getting approved, Grieve says, his department approached the policy as a “foundation,” leaving components such as transportation or parks and recreation for a later date.

Flowers warns that, given the exponential growth the Flathead is experiencing, there’s no time to wait for a plan offering more specificity.

But Grieve says “It just was not possible” to create a document that addresses every concern related to growth in the valley and still stood a chance of being approved in the nine months that his office had to create it. He says most counties in Montana started working on growth policies two years before the state’s Oct. 1, 2006 deadline. According to Grieve, the Flathead County Planning Board was originally going to tackle the growth policy itself, but became bogged down in new subdivision applications and finally asked the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office for help nine months ago.

By using the foundation approach, the planning and zoning office was able to create a draft growth policy quickly. It was also able to skirt the possibility that one contentious element, say an open space plan, could tank the whole policy.

The problem, Flowers points out, is that if the county commissioners ultimately approve the current draft policy, there could be a long gap in which developments could be approved without detailed growth policy components in place.

Flowers believes there’s a solution that could provide guidance in the interim. That is, falling back on key provisions of the 1987 growth policy.

She notes that the 1987 plan has a reputation as being a bit of a dinosaur, but points to specific language within the document, such as a passage that calls for new development to be located near existing infrastructure.

“That’s a fairly strong, forward statement, and yet it’s not being carried forward,” Flowers says.

In short, she’s hoping that the teeth and spine from the 1987 document can be transplanted into the new policy, at least until the public can agree on specifics.

On Aug. 10, the planning and zoning department will accept final public comments on the draft growth policy. The department will then incorporate those comments into the policy before sending it to the Flathead County Planning Board, which will hear another round of public comment Sept. 6. Public comment is used to reshape each draft of the growth policy.

In order to bring her concerns about the policy to the public, and ultimately to county officials, Citizens for a Better Flathead had three of its employees, Nicole Karpavich, Shareen Rawlings and Neil Hilton, create an online survey that points out flaws in the draft policy, proposes solutions, and asks residents to rate those solutions. To make the survey results verifiable, each respondent is required to give their name. So far, Flowers says, about 100 people have taken the survey. By comparison, Flathead County itself has received 183 written comments on the policy so far. Citizens will present the survey results at the end of each public comment stage.

Of course, by using a survey to generate public comment, Citizens loses control of what that comment ultimately says. Also, it’s hard to say how much weight the planning office will give to a survey engineered by a group with a stake in the outcome. But Flowers hopes that if nothing else, the survey will provoke thought on what the growth policy could be, and get more people involved in a decision that could impact them for a long time to come.

The importance of the new growth policy to Flathead County residents is hard to overstate. The last one governed growth in the Flathead for 19 years and, as Grieve says, “We don’t have a plan ‘B.’”

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