Planning coup 

Kalispell pair petitions for a new growth policy

It’s a good sign of how contentious growth issues in Flathead County have gotten when a pair of petitions that could alter Kalispell’s growth policy—and which aren’t even available for citizens to sign until approved by the Kalispell city attorney—can be the subject of two news articles and two editorials in the local daily paper.

In fact, these potential petitions have been deemed newsworthy despite the fact that if the city attorney approves them, they would need more than 4,500 signatures to be placed on a ballot, would then have to be voted on, and after all that would have only a hypothetical impact on the land they propose to regulate.

One of the proposed petitions seeks the recall of a portion of Kalispell’s new growth policy, approved by the city council Aug. 7. The other would put a new policy in its place.

Because their petitions are so far removed from having any actual impact on local growth issues, the two Kalispell women who proposed them, Roxanna Brothers and Jo Ann Nieman, have denied requests by local media to explain their motives, saying such a discussion was “premature.”

For that they were chastised by the Daily Inter Lake in two recent editorials: “Don’t sign secretive Kalispell petition” on Sept. 1, and “No signatures without answers first” on Sept. 14.

The editorials ask whom Brothers represents (she’s labeled in the Sept. 14 editorial as a “lone woman”), what she sees wrong with the original growth policy and the process that created it, and what she hopes her replacement policy will accomplish. The editorial then alleges that Brothers’ true mission is to derail James “Bucky” Wolford’s proposed 750,000-square-foot Glacier Mall—which could, assuming it clears remaining legal hurdles from an unrelated lawsuit, be built on the land covered by the proposed petitions. The article also insinuates that Brothers is backed by smart-growth proponents Citizens for a Better Flathead.

In response to the editorials, Brothers and Nieman decided to speak with the Independent.

The two women say they do not represent Citizens for a Better Flathead, or any other group for that matter. They did, however, register their own group, Town Champions, with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices in early July.

They say they’ve been closely following the evolution of Kalispell’s growth policy, attending planning board and city council meetings, and became especially concerned about how it would affect approximately 13 square miles of real estate north of Kalispell’s Reserve Street. The area immediately to the south of this land has been the focus of commercial growth in the Flathead in recent years, with the building of a Target, Best Buy, Costco, Lowe’s, Home Depot and other large retail stores.

The impetus for the pair’s petitions came in early August, when the city council altered the draft growth policy the city planning department had drawn up, the planning board had passed, and the public had commented upon. The council adjusted the maximum commercial acreage up from 150 to 450 acres, allowing space for the Glacier Mall.

“They affirmed absolutely everything Bucky wanted for his mall,” Nieman says.

But stopping the mall was not the focus of their petition, Nieman and Brothers say; it was the straw, piled on a haystack of poor planning, that broke their backs.

The city’s growth policy, they say, does not hold developers accountable enough for municipal costs incurred by their projects, or for those projects’ quality.

“[City Council members] act like we should all be happy that a developer was kind enough to slap down some box stores,” Nieman says.

Nieman and Brothers have written a replacement growth policy that would attempt to steer the area north of Reserve Street toward smaller retail stores surrounded by residential development and open space. It would also, they say, limit the negative impacts of development on the community, and require developers to focus on quality, right down to building construction and design.

“If we’re not going to insist on quality, we’re going to get junk, and it’s going to be our own fault,” Nieman says.

Their plan is typical of what smart-growth groups, including Citizens for a Better Flathead, have always pushed for. The women say they developed their growth policy by researching what other, more progressive cities are doing.

One aspect of their proposed growth policy is to limit retail development to 60,000 sq. ft., effectively excluding Wolford’s 750,000-square-foot mall.

Kalispell City Planner Tom Jentz says he is still analyzing what the Nieman-Brothers growth policy might look like on the ground. As of now, he already has reservations about the policy’s limitation on commercial development and retail store size.

“Those big stores don’t have to be in Kalispell,” he says, arguing that if developers want to build in the Flathead, they’ll find a place to do it, whether or not it’s within city limits.

And in fact, Jentz points out, the land that Nieman and Brothers hope to impact isn’t even within Kalispell city limits. At least not yet.

The land is currently in Flathead County. Kalispell’s policy would only apply if that land is later annexed into the city. Annexation allows businesses to connect to municipal water and sewer, but in order to annex, such businesses would have to comply with the city’s growth policy.

Should developers find the city’s growth policy too onerous, they could decide not to apply for annexation, and build their own water and sewer system. Wolford’s attorney, Ken Kalvig, says that’s exactly what will happen with the Glacier Mall, should the Nieman-Brothers growth policy be approved by voters.

So the ultimate impact, in any, of the proposed petitions on growth issues in the Flathead remains far from clear. So far, they’ve only added another layer of muck to an already murky issue.

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