Citizens’ closure is a loss in planning arena

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For 27 years Citizens for a Better Flathead has been the watchdog for land-use planning and smart growth in the Flathead Valley, but that oversight will now be gone as the nonprofit shutters its office amid a funding shortfall. Gone also is the Waste Not Project that brought recycling education to the forefront.

Citizens has been at the forefront of monitoring and addressing the challenges of growth in the Flathead, from land-use decisions such as zone changes to recycling and water-quality issues. Its leaders have been champions of the public process through the years, much to the irritation of many developers who would have loved to have their projects sail through the local government approval process without questions or opposition.

Longtime Citizens Executive Director Mayre Flowers, who retired two years ago, spent thousands of hours at Planning Board and City Council meetings tirelessly crusading for transparency and following the proper public process.

What we lose without the oversight of organizations such as Citizens for a Better Flathead is an insidious thing. It’s difficult to measure the tangible results of the nonprofit’s work, but the results are all around us as we see green space preserved and thoughtful neighborhood developments. We venture to guess urban sprawl would be a lot worse along our highways if not for the diligence of Citizens, which hasn’t been afraid to go to court over land-use decisions.

Property rights advocates often have criticized groups such as Citizens that are sticklers for land-use planning. They believe they should be able to do what they want with their land, but as Citizens’ leaders have always noted, property rights benefit from safeguards such as zoning and a public approval process to make sure those rights are protected.

Flowers expressed her disappointment to the Inter Lake this week about Citizens’ decision to close, and encouraged the board to summon its many stakeholders to talk about further financial support. If there’s still a chance to salvage the organization, we agree the board should consider it.

In Citizens’ absence, grassroots groups likely will still pop up to address neighborhood issues. The water bottling plant at Creston is a good example. A couple of organizations formed in the wake of that development to address their environmental concerns over the bottling plant.

What Citizens brought to the table, though, was the kind of overarching oversight and consistency that’s needed in addressing land-use planning as a whole in Flathead County. The nonprofit’s closure is a big loss, one that is sure to be felt as time goes on.

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