Red streak 

Bitterroot zoning backlash triggers a GOP windfall

Campaign signs plastered around the Bitterroot Valley this autumn tell a complicated—some say, sordid—tale of an election that resulted in a resounding victory for area Republicans. In what was otherwise a day destined for the Democratic Party’s all-time highlight reel, the Bitterroot bucked state and regional trends, and bucked them hard.

The reason behind it proved a powerful voter turnout largely unrelated to the historic presidential election. Ravalli County Republicans rallied behind a movement to repeal a controversial growth policy originally passed in 2002 and reaffirmed by voters in 2004. That hot local issue drove GOP-inclined voters to the polls in staggering numbers, where they defeated the growth policy by roughly 1,300 votes and took the rest of the ballot along with it.

In the Bitterroot, John McCain beat out Barack Obama by a full 21 points. Gubernatorial dark horse Roy Brown and senatorial long-shot Bob Kelleher, both Republicans, came as close as anywhere to moving in on their popular Democratic opponents, while literally all four of the remaining GOP executive office candidates toppled in the statewide races found a convincing margin of victory in Ravalli. Republicans also took both available county commissioner seats and every legislative district in the valley.

The results were quite different from 2007, which saw major Democratic victories across the board.

“It was a single-issue election,” says John Meakin, Ravalli County Democratic chair. “The governing issue was the growth policy. I think there are Republicans who would vote for [their local] candidates anyway—it’s not like they had zero base—but I think they would be outnumbered in an election without the growth policy.”

The growth policy isn’t actually legislation, but a type of directive Montana law requires before local government can enact zoning. By repealing it, opponents of land-use regulation effectively pulled the rug out from under politicians looking to pursue countywide zoning and other forms of land use code. For the proponents of a campaign that constituted a backlash against planning efforts in the Bitterroot, that was entirely the point.

“The whole election was a reaction,” says Ravalli County Commissioner-elect J.R. Iman, a Republican. “I don’t think people were ready for that much regulation. I think certain people tried to move too fast and without the will of the people.”

Free-growth and smart-growth crowds alike now wonder what effect this result will bear on future subdivision developments. Occupying many progressives’ cogitations of a “worst case scenario” are developments like the 625-home Flat Iron Ranch—an embattled subdivision proposal recently denied annexation by the city of Hamilton.

Opponents of past and future megadevelopments lament that their effort looks suddenly more arduous with zoning plans out of the picture. The situation also concerns some smart-growth advocates that developers will begin squirreling away approved plats for when the construction market rebounds.

In the meantime, critics of the repeal movement accuse their opponents of dirty tactics and running a campaign based on “fear and lies.”

“They are the ultimate extreme,” says 82-year-old Bitterroot activist Stewart Brandborg. “They have come in with a campaign that’s been well-financed to distort, misrepresent and lie about the growth policy, and to frighten people who care about this valley.”

Asked for examples of untruths, growth policy supporters point to opposition campaign claims that county zoning would mandate the metering of private wells, require the permitting of rural livestock and prohibit home schooling. One source dubbed the whole affair “a case of the wealthy exploiting the stupid.”

“If you look at the past drafts of zoning, all of those things are included in them,” replies Dan Floyd, head of the Higher Ground Foundation, a nonprofit property rights committee that campaigned to repeal the growth policy. “There have been comments made about how we’re an ignorant, mean, well-financed group—all three of those are wrong.”

In October, growth policy supporter Mary Morris of Darby filed a formal complaint with the state Office of Political Practices alleging that Higher Ground, which paid out almost $15,000 for the repeal campaign, wasn’t disclosing its funding sources. Democrats suspect the committee’s bankroll roster includes more than the anti-zoning hoi polloi.

“I think if we knew who the players were, we could figure out who’s behind the movement to repeal the growth policy,” Morris explains. “I just want to know where the money came from.”

Floyd believes the designation of his group as an incidental committee to be wholly appropriate. If the political practices commissioner agrees, it would preclude Higher Ground from having to disclose its sources under PAC law.

“It’s just the standard practice to come up with an allegation—that’s how they tend to try and defeat their opponents,” says growth policy opponent Dan Cox. He questions why nonprofits that advocated in favor of the growth policy—like Trout Unlimited and the Sonoran Institute—avoid such criticism. “It’s just a double standard.”

Both sides await word from Montana Political Practices Commissioner Dennis Unsworth, who asked last week that Higher Ground furnish more information by Nov. 7 supporting its claimed exemption to PAC laws. Though Unsworth’s findings may eventually shed light on campaign malfeasance, Democrats note they won’t undo Republican gains in the county, nor will they reverse the two-year hold that now binds any efforts to zone the Bitterroot.

“Unfortunately, it was a negative campaign,” Meakin says. “I’ve been in them before and I hate them because they don’t offer any alternatives. It’s not like some kinds of zoning are bad, they just wanted to kill the whole thing. And they succeeded, of course.”
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