Who’s On Board? 

Ravalli Co. commissioners seize control of the planning process

None of the 100 people who met two weeks ago to discuss the future of Ravalli County oppose the idea of having an official county plan—but each one of them has a different idea of what that plan should be and how it should be implemented.

The only three people in the room that night who were not publicly committed to the idea of some sort of a county plan were the county’s three elected county commissioners. And they were there to issue an ultimatum to the planning board and all the citizens who have spent years proposing—and opposing—various planning proposals:

Before the county commissioners are willing to make a decision about the fate of planning in Ravalli County, they want a detailed list of data as outlined in the 1999 revision of the Montana state codes—a plan for how to plan.

Included in the list are descriptions of land uses, population characteristics, housing and economic issues, the use of local services, the use of public facilities, natural resource impacts and water issues. And the commissioners want the data assembled in a user-friendly format by Dec. 1, 1999.

To allow the planners and planning board to accomplish that goal in the required time, the commissioners offered to take over the review of all subdivisions until their goals are met.

“Let’s be very clear on this,” County Commissioner Jack Atthowe told the assembled planning board members. “We are now driving the bus and we want all of you on board. If you can’t come on board, let us know and we’ll get a new board.”

Atthowe and fellow commissioners Smut Warren and Allen Thompson drew criticism from both planning board members and citizens for their demands.

Planning board chairman Kirk Thompson said he was “surprised” by the requirements. “The problems of growth are visible to all around us,” Thompson said. “We don’t need to collect data to see if we have a problem. The issue is how do we intelligently deal with it.”

But the commissioners will not make a decision on whether to adopt any sort of comprehensive plan for the county until they have that information. “We’re not talking about adopting a growth policy tonight. We’re talking about data for a decision on whether a growth policy is needed or not,” said Commissioner Thompson. “The preponderance of the data is out there. It just needs to be collected and brought together. We’re not interested in you studying this to death.”

Commissioner Smut Warren sympathized with the planning board, saying he understood their frustration when the board presented things to the county commissioners that were never acted upon. He said the commissioners needed more information “so we can put it to a vote of the people or we can adopt it ourselves.”

A number of planning board members called the commissioners’ proposal “overwhelming” and “awesome.” Kirk Thompson said he did not think the task could be accomplished in the 10 weeks given by the commissioners and asked if they would be willing to provide backing to the planners in the form of more staff and more wages to ensure the work was done.

But county manager/financial officer Don Klepper made no promises. While saying the commissioners stood ready to “redistribute resources to help if we can,” he also said the planners needed to distill the past 10 years’ efforts into a “user-friendly summation” to allow the commissioners to reach an informed decision about the next step they would take.

“What is the product of all this work?” Klepper asked. “In 10 years there have been no conclusions. Three months is reasonable. The commissioners need to deal with this and move on.”

Missoula attorney Jim Mickelson, who is under contract to the county commissioners as an advisor, agreed: “The county commissioners need a basis to make a decision. That’s what they are asking for.”

Planning board member Lee Foss pointed out that the revised state codes do not mandate a county growth policy plan. The other option—which seemed unthinkable to almost everyone who spoke—is for no formal growth plan policy to exist except for voluntary zoning districts. At present, Ravalli County has 37 voluntary zoning districts.

Mickelson called the voluntary districts “a piecemeal situation” and said the voluntary zones have no consistency. “If we talk rationally about a county-wide growth policy, it is needed. A growth policy—a county-wide plan—doesn’t necessarily mean zoning. Those are policy decisions not made yet.”

Atthowe praised the planning board for its past work and said he knew the new request would entail a great deal more. But he added a firm warning, “If you feel as an individual board member you cannot afford to spend this time and effort, please let us know as soon as possible.”

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