North Forkers unite 

And divide over development in the Flathead's outback

After the North Fork Road crosses Big Creek, it’s mostly washboard and potholes. The road parallels the federally protected wild and scenic North Fork of the Flathead River, which forms the western edge of Glacier National Park. After Big Creek, the road stretches clear up to Canada. Along the way, it passes through grizzly habitat and the micro-town of Polebridge. Phone lines follow part of the road, but North Forkers—as the 100 or so year-round residents are known—have to make their own electricity.

For years, residents have worked to hammer out a series of plans to preserve this last wild sliver of Flathead County. So it’s not news that a majority of North Forkers want to regulate commercial development. People move to this place in search of sanctuary and something different than the tourist trap corridor leading up to nearby West Glacier.

While there’s much on which North Forkers agree, the long, drawn out planning process is spotted with some bad blood. At odds are two camps: Those who wish to preserve the North Fork with some of the county’s strictest development codes, and those who think some of the proposed zoning needlessly impinges on private property rights.

When landowner Ed Langton talks about these rights, he likes to use the word “destiny.”

A banker from Hattiesburg, Miss., Langton sees his destiny unfolding on the 179 acres he owns north of Polebridge. The spread was used to film scenes for the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate, notes Langton, who has yet to develop the property. When in Montana, he stays at a cabin near the Canadian border.

Langton’s future plans remain a cause for speculation among North Forkers who worry their neighbor with the genteel Southern drawl and determined attitude has something big in the works. At meetings of the North Fork Land Use Planning Committee, Langton thorns his way into the sides of those pushing for certain restrictions. It didn’t help his reputation when, two or three times in the last year, Langton dropped what he was doing in Mississippi and flew out to attend key planning sessions.

Spending $1,600 each time for a last-minute ticket, Langton’s determination and financial commitment to the process earned him an unflattering label: “developer.” He’s a rich, outspoken Southerner, and perhaps that reminded many of another rich, outspoken man of the South with a stake to protect in the Flathead.

Bucky Wolford, of Chattanooga, Tenn., wants to build the largest mall in Montana in the already sprawling Flathead community of Evergreen. Langton and Wolford both come from a privileged world where gentry mingle at tailgate parties on football Saturdays and swap stories about their second homes out West (Wolford’s is in Jackson, Wyo.).

But that’s where the two part company, insists Langton, who says he’s never met Wolford but believes he may be paying for the sins of the man behind “the mall.” “The way they do it is so distasteful—to call me an out-of-state developer,” says Langton of his critics. “If they could put horns on me I think they would.”

Richard Wackrow, the former planning committee chair who’s found himself at odds with Langton, reiterates that an overwhelming majority of North Forkers are “against commercial development that will have a high impact on our lifestyle.”

“If [Langton] takes that personally,” adds Wackrow, “then that’s his problem.”

Langton says he didn’t set out to “upset the apple cart” because in his work-a-day life in Mississippi, he endures plenty of “aggravation, control freaks, boards and committees.”

Langton is CEO of Grand Bank in Hattiesburg, a business that specializes in mortgage lending. “But as far as me being a developer, that’s misleading,” he says. A news story search and calls to reporters covering development in Hattiesburg turned up nothing to contradict Langton, who may be best known in the Pine Belt as the president of the University of Southern Mississippi Alumni Association.

Langton’s resume also notes that in 2000, he received the Silver Beaver Award from the Pine Burr Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. It’s his work with the Boy Scouts and connection to church groups that could be driving his ambitions for the North Fork. Langton says he may one day decide to turn his spread into a “retreat center” with “a lodge and guest cabins” where scouts and congregation members can gather. The property also has a private airstrip, but Langton hasn’t announced any plans for its use.

“They think I’m going to go in on that property and build Disney World,” says Langton. “I’m not talking about doing anything that’s environmentally not good.”

What is and isn’t good for the North Fork will continue to be hashed out over the coming year. Ironically, the planning efforts of North Forkers have been thwarted by the same legal barrier that’s helping to block Bucky Wolford’s proposed mega-mall. A recent ruling from the Montana Attorney General’s office has halted certain zoning changes and development until each county completes a comprehensive growth policy.

But from the North Fork, residents can see light on the horizon. Gary Hall, the outgoing Republican mayor of Columbia Falls, will be replacing the zealously anti-zoning Dale Williams on the Flathead County Commission in January. Hall ran on a pro-zoning platform and as a commissioner, he’ll be able to replace some of the pro-Williams/anti-zoning appointees on the county’s planning board.

Hall recently attended a planning discussion where the room was filled with North Forkers of all political stripes. The newly elected commissioner says he was impressed by the community’s willingness to work together. But Hall knows that within the detailed wording of any proposed zoning, there remains an acrimonious division between residents like Langton and Wackrow.

“That gap needs to be narrowed,” says Hall. “And I’m optimistic that I can do it.”

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