Citing a thorough, two-year-long planning process, the Flathead County commissioners on Friday unanimously approved an update of the 2007 county growth policy.
The revised growth policy now will include a property rights bill of rights, among other changes, that lists a number of requirements that must be met in land-use regulations “because of the increasing emphasis by the Montana courts on the ‘regulatory’ nature of growth policies.”
If there are conflicts between any provisions in the growth policy, the property owners’ bill of rights will take precedence, the final draft states.
Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who promised that bill of rights when she campaigned for the county job two years ago, said she supported its inclusion in the revised growth policy.
“It has been quite contentious for some reason,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want fair and due process and equal treatment? We all have a right to that process.”
Holmquist said she had read through extensive public comments on the plan revision, including letters of concern from water-quality groups such as the Flathead Lakers. She said there are many agencies that address water quality.
“When there’s development, there’s the potential for 26 referral agencies to comment on what you’re doing. They’re the experts,” Holmquist said. “I don’t think we need another layer of government to protect” water quality and the environment.
Although the commissioners did not hold a public hearing on the revisions to the nonregulatory document, they fully expected citizen input during their normal 15-minute public comment time slot on Friday, bringing in Deputy County Attorney Tara Fugina to announce the procedures for taking public comments.
But only one person spoke.
Sharon DeMeester pointed out that substantive changes were made during the last two months of the review process and more time was needed for consideration.
Citizens for a Better Flathead Executive Director Mayre Flowers spoke Thursday during the public comment session, correcting some misleading information supplied earlier by the Montana Environmental Consultants Association.
After Friday’s vote on the revised growth policy, Flowers said the commissioners’ decision to adopt the changes abdicated their responsibility to keep in place policies that are designed to safeguard water quality, conserve transportation infrastructure and ensure the Flathead “grows in a way that recognizes that the quality of our environment is our greatest economic resource.
“It was more than ironic that their primary arguments for stripping key policies from the growth policy was that the county has some 26 state and local agencies that they said they either listen to in making decisions because these agencies understand the science or are better suited to setting and enforcing policy,” Flowers said.
“One commissioner made this statement even while holding up a letter from one of these agencies that urged them not to strip out the water-quality and land-use provisions because they were essential to protecting water quality.
“Another commissioner took the position that there are no traffic problems on county roads and that it is up to the state or federal government to address issues arising on roads they maintain in the county,” Flowers said.
Commissioner Dale Lauman, who said he had heard comments that the revised growth policy would be “set in stone,” had Planning Director BJ Grieve reiterate the point that either the Planning Board or citizens can initiate amendments to the growth policy.
Lauman said many of the public comments dealt with preventing commercial development along highways. But, he said, most of the highways in the county are unzoned. Commercial development “could happen right now,” Lauman contended.
“I’m not promoting or not promoting zoning,” she said. “But it’s not feasible or workable to zone the whole county.”
Commissioner Cal Scott said he supported the updated growth policy because it gives a good, responsible vision for the future of Flathead County.
All three commissioners lauded the Planning Board and planning staff for an exhaustive process that included 21 workshops and two public hearings.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.