Planning to Fail 

Why sprawl in the Bitterroot is out of control, and why it will never be fixed

This is Ravalli County, Montana: 36,000 people and one story. Their story is one that’s been told so often that it’s earned the status of rural legend, a tale to be handed down from parent to child. This, in a nutshell, is their story: Someone built something really objectionable on the bare land next door and ruined their lifestyle.

The details change from telling to telling. The land next door can be anything from a 100-acre meadow to a one-acre field of knapweed. The objectionable thing can be anything at all—most typically a house, sometimes a store, a church or, in one notorious instance, an Egyptian-themed four-plex theater complete with “ancient” Egyptian art and interior waterfall.

Sometimes the objectionable thing is just a rumor run rampant, like a racetrack or a tire-shredding plant. Sometimes it’s an intolerable government/corporate scheme, like a cell phone tower, an Air Force communications network or the county’s largest billboard.

Whatever the details, the response is almost always the same: Neighbors of the obnoxious project, convinced that their cherished rural lifestyle is doomed by the new thing next door, descend on the Board of County Commissioners, petitions in hand, and demand that the commissioners immediately stop the subdivision/cell tower/billboard/theater in its tracks.

That’s the board’s cue to explain, for the umpteenth time, that it has no legal authority to tell Joe McLean that he can’t build his Pharaohplex theater on a narrow, windy, unlit road in an agricultural neighborhood. Or that a landowner can’t subdivide his land and put 10 houses on 10 acres. Or that someone else can’t put 140 condos and a putting green on 12 acres.

No one listens and everyone goes away angry, convinced that government has, yet again, refused to hear the voice of the people. Bitterrooters respond by either forming an opposition group to the objectionable thing, or, if it’s not in their neighborhood, they ignore it. The commissioners move on to the next agenda item, almost relieved to tackle a problem that has an actual solution, like deciding to replace the old boiler at the courthouse.

Project, alarm, complaint. In that order. In the Bitterroot, it’s become a rite, sort of like spring Migration Mania at the Metcalf Wildlife Refuge, or Chief Victor Days every July, only it occurs much more frequently.

Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau identified the intermountain Rocky Mountain West as the fastest-growing region in the country. Montana was not one of the five states listed in the fastest-growing category, a fact that should surely surprise most Bitterrooters, many of whom consider Ravalli County as ground zero in the population explosion.

Still, a 44 percent growth rate in the 1990s is significant all by itself. And it made Ravalli County the fastest-growing county in Montana, a fact not lost on those many Bitterrooters who woke up one morning at some point in the past decade to the sounds of a well-driller next door.

And it’s not just Bitterrooters who can sense the sprawl in Ravalli County these days. Just last week, the Montana Smart Growth Coalition released its report which found, among other things, that Ravalli County’s farmland acreage is dwindling. From 1992 to 1997, Ravalli County’s farmed acres decreased from 241,655 acres to 183,647 acres. The average size of a farm dropped to 170 acres from 258 acres during the same period. Houses are replacing crops, it seems, with more subdivisions popping up on land that once grew food.

Why, then, does Ravalli County still lack a policy to direct its growth? The Political Gets Personal

Surely, it’s not for a lack of trying. Last year, the County Commissioners appointed a new planning board and handed down a simple, direct order to its members: Develop a comprehensive growth policy, school district by school district, from Sula to Florence.

It’s a year later, and still there is no growth policy. Why not? Ask county planners past and present and you’ll find that personal politics has triumphed over public policy, that the sense of community has been trumped by a refusal to work together for the common good. Ask anyone involved in the issue and they’ll give you the same answer, arrive at the same conclusion: It is that stubborn unwillingness to sacrifice anything for the sake of community that has doomed the efforts to direct the county’s growth.

It’s a trend that’s written in Ravalli County’s recent history. As early as the late 1980s, the Bitterroot Valley was under siege. It seemed that urban refugees from other states, notably California, where the fall of the Soviet Union led to the temporary collapse of that state’s huge defense industry, were finding solace in the Bitterroot Valley. Though the population trend waxed and waned in the past decade, it moved inexorably upward, eventually coming to rest in 2000 at 36,070.

With those kinds of numbers, the “infrastructure,” as they say in government, is affected. Volunteer firefighters are called to more fires, and more out-of-the-way fires. Darby just built a new fire hall. The Painted Rocks and Charlos Heights neighborhoods just established their own fire districts, which will also need new fire halls. Sheriff’s deputies are dispatched to more and more homes; ambulances likewise. There are more kids in schools, but no sidewalks that lead to them. Wastewater treatment plants are overwhelmed, and longtime taxpayers are tapped to pay for upgrades to accommodate the newcomers. The roads and bridges cannot accommodate the increasing traffic.

As former county road supervisor Larry Higginbotham once noted, there’s been a general upward trend in prosperity in the Bitterroot over the past 20 years. For him, that meant that more people were demanding their roads be paved because they were driving nicer cars, and they wanted nicer roads. But just as the road department came up with a plan to pave more roads, homeowners asked that their roads be left in bad condition to keep traffic speeds low.

A frequently cited study from Gallatin County shows that for every $1 collected in property taxes, taxpayers pay $1.45 to provide services to subdivisions set far from existing services. That study has been largely accepted as a general rule by those who support planning, and is mostly rejected by those who don’t.

The list of needs and government services for a growing community is nearly endless. And the uneasy transformation of the Bitterroot Valley from rural to suburban has become a chronic condition. Faced with the indisputable fact of unprecedented population growth—and all its attendant problems—county government responded. Weakly.

In the early ‘90s, the two-man county planning staff, still idealistic, eager and naive, made a stab at writing a growth policy. (The name, like the county itself, changes often. It’s been called, at various times, a master plan, a land-use plan, a comprehensive plan, and lately, a growth policy. It’s never been called zoning, the “z” word having been banished from the halls of the county courthouse long ago.) The two planners scheduled dozens of meetings around the valley, at which public sentiment was gauged.

The Hamilton meetings were marked by extremism. On one hand were the adamant pro-planning folks, who worked out the details at a large, round table, or in small groups. Surrounding them were the just-as-adamant anti-planners, like Oris Olsen, who circled the group while wearing a revolver in a hip holster, thereby prompting the Hamilton City Council to prohibit firearms on city property. And there was K.C. Smith who also skulked around the meetings, taking little part other than to brandish a sign reading “Ban the Plan,” which he had stuck in his hatband.

Despite the animosity, policy chapters addressing needs like housing and transportation were written as part of a larger plan, and then were promptly shelved when the then-Board of County Commissioners sent down the word from on high: Any growth policy written by the planning staff would go to a vote of the people.

Believing that a public vote would doom the plan, since no one was likely to read it, the two planners, their work and time suddenly worthless, regrouped and developed “Plan B: Vision 2020,” a hastily written, vaguely worded policy statement calling for the protection of all the usual things people hold dear: air, water, open space. It failed at the polls.

Since then, planning for growth in Ravalli County has become a factionalized affair, says county Land Services Director Jake Kammerer. One group forms to work on the design of Highway 93 through Florence; another for Stevensville and still another for Victor, and so on down the valley. One group concentrates on a bike path for Corvallis. One group wants to improve the Hamilton airport, while at the same time another works to keep it the way it is. The Three Mile Fire Chief protects his turf by collecting cash donations from land developers for every new lot created by subdivision in his fire district. Still others, concerned about the loss of farmland, formed the Bitter Root Land Trust to establish conservation easements.

Meanwhile, according to former county sanitarian/planner Dan Mullin, developers try to wrest every lot possible from their proposed subdivisions, regardless of the aesthetics, while environmentalists try to stop everyone’s plans, regardless of financial need.

But all the factions are united by the one thing they have in common, says Kammerer: mutual distrust.

“There’s no trust factor,” he says. In particular, no one—not even groups that are traditionally at odds with one another—trusts government. “And internally, even the government isn’t happy with the government.”

Kammerer himself is at odds with the year-old planning board. He calls them “talkers, not doers.” The board has spent the past year arguing over a budget to hire a professional land-planning consultant, he says, because they don’t consider Kammerer to be bona fide planner. He is, in fact, a registered sanitarian who learned land-use planning through on-the-job training.

Planning board members are not as eager to criticize Kammerer as he is them, but several people interviewed for this story say Kammerer has alienated the planning board with his attitude. But others criticize the planning board for doing little in the past year, other than reviewing subdivision requests. Some planning board members say the board is still reeling from the fundamental personnel and structural changes made to the Land Services Department in the past year, and it’s just now beginning to work on a growth policy.

Even the planning board and county commissioners are suspicious of each other. Don Contraman, a former Hamilton city planner now working for the county, says planners and commissioners are scheduled to meet this month in a showdown. The planning board wants the commissioners’ commitment to planning, though Commissioner Jack Atthowe says he and his colleagues have already given the planners a clear mandate to write a growth policy. Though the showdown is billed as a meeting, Contraman says it will be “more of a bloodletting.”

Kammerer says the two groups who have lobbied the Board of County Commissioners relentlessly either for a growth policy—that would be Bitterrooters for Planning—or against—Voters Opportunity to Educate—no longer have any credibility with the board. “Because they say the same things every time: ‘These are your problems.’ Don’t tell me your problems, tell me your solutions.”

Neither group trusts the board of county commissioners, either, he adds.

LaRue Moorhouse, who was president of Bitterrooters for Planning in its most aggressive era, says her group supports the planning board’s actions. “The planning board is really struggling to move forward with the plan, but they can’t get the support they need,” she says. “These people really want to do something, but it’s frustrating for the board because they really are struggling.”

Moorhouse, too, says there is too much suspicion and distrust on everyone’s part. The distrust runs so deep, she says, that no one is willing to do the relatively simple job of reviewing successful growth policies written by other communities in Montana or elsewhere. There is the feeling, she says, that another county’s growth plan is suspect simply because it was developed somewhere else. “There are very successful growth plans around this country and I don’t think we’re making use of them,” she observes. But doing so would set off the anti-planning crowd who would use a foreign-made growth policy as “just another hook” to stop the process.

The result is that everyone circles the wagons around their own projects, and leaves the board of county commissioners to put out the fires that threaten the community as a whole. Like quickly writing up a cell phone tower ordinance to protect one small Victor neighborhood that mounted a strong opposition to the tower proposed in their area. Or coming up with a billboard ordinance to protect against visual blight—but only after mammoth billboards began appearing along Highway 93 to the dismay of yet another quickly formed opposition group.

There is no cohesiveness in the community when it comes to growth planning, Kammerer says. In fact, there’s not even any community. As he sees it, the Bitterroot Valley is in danger of becoming a place where, as Gertrude Stein once noted of Oakland, Calif., there is no there there. “Community is just a word,” he says.

The other reason that Montana’s fastest-growing county still lacks a growth policy, he says, is that there is no one to coordinate all of the individual neighborhood protection efforts into one overall Florence-to-Sula growth policy.

“They don’t have any central direction,” he says. “There’s no conduit to the overall county government.”

He gives an example. Some years ago, the unincorporated town of Florence obtained a grant to build a wastewater treatment plant. But the citizens there had to return the grant because no one was in charge of administering the grant, and no one could decide where to place the system.

Kammerer finds that story nearly unbelievable. It underscores his contention that when it comes to planning, the public must be led by strong government leaders.

Dan Mullin, however, disagrees. Mullin is now a private land-development consultant. The fact that Kammerer and Mullin, both experienced in their mutual field, disagree on how efforts to write a growth policy failed in Ravalli County, and how it could succeed, is, in itself, evidence that even people with similar concerns can’t seem to agree.

For his part, Mullin says a growth policy will succeed as long as it’s written for your neighbor, but not for you. “When you’re standing on your homesite and thinking of your new home, [lack of planning] is not a problem,” he says. “But when it’s your neighbor’s homesite, it’s a problem.”

Kammerer says the conflict between private property rights absolutists and the NIMBYists has also derailed the growth planning process. “You hear ‘not in my backyard’ and ‘I can do this on my property,’” he says.

Mullin agrees with Kammerer on that point, and has his own story to tell. A Florence woman of his acquaintance became livid when her neighbor submitted a two-lot subdivision split for the County Commissioners’ approval. Later, when she asked how she could split her own lot in two, she was advised to follow the same process as her neighbor had. The woman was incredulous, Mullin says, because she wasn’t actually subdividing, she insisted, but merely splitting her lot in two.

In other words, your plan for your property is OK; your neighbor’s is not. “It’s an obstructionist atmosphere on all sides,” he says. “There’s no will for a common good.” Failing to Plan or Planning to Fail?

Bitterrooters are long past the time when they were dependent on their neighbors. These days, folks are living the beloved Western myth that never was—the myth of the independent landowner, the rugged individualist who owes no one and is beholden to no one. Who goes his own way and does with his land as he sees fit. Who sees his neighbor’s chimney smoke and knows it’s time to move on.

But they’re not moving on. Rather, they’re moving in. And in some cases, people are making land use decisions that either don’t meet the needs of a changing community, or end up harming the land.

Contraman believes education is the key to proper land-use decision-making. For example, he says, newcomers often arrive with enough cash to buy 10, 20 or 30 acres. What they lack is the knowledge they need to maintain that much land. “The fencing costs alone will kill you,” he says.

One-acre lots cause their own problems, say Contraman and Kammerer. Few people have the time or inclination to keep weeds down on small lots. And one-acre tracts tend to breed lots of “stuff,” says Kammerer—stuff like machine parts, dead cars, used tires and other eyesores that prompt frustrated neighbors to file community decay complaints that often are unenforceable and divisive.

Contraman says the many factions pushing for one type of development or another never conduct market analyses to determine whether those developments are even needed. Currently, he says, various groups are working to establish a swimming pool, an ice rink and a skateboard park—developments for children. All well and good, says Contraman, but he suspects that census data will show that adults are a faster-growing segment of the population. Where are the plans for developments that will benefit senior citizens or middle-aged Bitterrooters? “You’ve got a lot of diverse opinion and it’s not brought together in a cohesive voice,” he says.

Meanwhile, Dan Mullin believes he has a planning idea that just might work. And listening to him explain it, you get the feeling that he’s been thinking about it for a long time. County government should protect the three areas all Bitterrooters have in common: Highway 93, the Bitterroot River and the Eastside Highway. Establish building setbacks for each corridor, encourage development near towns and prohibit it elsewhere. Establish neighborhood planning boards and let them hash out the details of proposed subdivisions in their own neighborhoods, without involving the entire board. You might have to be a Bitterrooter to appreciate the differences in individual neighborhoods, but those differences exist. The Corvallis school district probably harbors the most extreme differences in neighborhoods, from the conservative farm areas to the Mormon community of Pinesdale to the wealthy second-home part-timers at the Stock Farm. But every school district has its own distinct neighborhoods, some of which, ironically, came about because of the lack of planning.

Work on the aesthetics, Mullin says, because beauty is what everyone, following their own paths, is striving to maintain and protect.

“His suggestion is a little late,” says Ben Hillicoss, a planning board member who represents Florence. “The problem is we’re under pressure to get a growth policy done in the next year. We’re desperately trying to develop one.”

This spring, the board members will fan out across the valley, one school district at a time, to ask people what they want their neighborhoods to look like. When they’re done, they hope and believe, they’ll have a growth policy that reflects the needs of individual school districts, rather than one, all-encompassing plan that makes no distinction between the bedroom community of Florence and the ranching community of Sula.

The planning board, despite the politics, the mistrust and the failed efforts of the past, is optimistically moving forward. The board thinks it may have a winner on its hands this time. The trick is to get everyone on board.

Commissioner Alan Thompson says the Board of County Commissioners will budget $100,000 to formulate a growth policy, something that’s never been done before. “That’s never been done in the past,” he says. He hopes the investment will pay off. “I hope it happens, my heavens.”

Meanwhile Commissioner Jack Atthowe echoes what everyone else with a hand in the issue has been saying: The fact that there are too many factions is what has led to the lack of vision for Ravalli County. “I think there is a need for vision coming from the county, the planning board and planning staff,” he says. “Where do we want to go in this valley?”

Indeed, that’s the question that’s been asked for more than a decade, but never answered.

Will last week’s report from the Montana Smart Growth Coalition finally provide some answers? Doubtful, since it’s likely that the report will never reach the desks of the people who most need to read it, and even then, it won’t carry much credibility with a county that’s highly suspicious of solutions that come from outside the Bitterroot.

What is likely is that personal politics will have to change before the Bitterroot Valley is able to devise a homegrown cure for its chronic growing pains. And that may be more of a challenge than the relatively easy task of writing a growth policy that everyone can live with.

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