Whitefish City Planner Answers Critics

By Beacon Staff

Bob Horne may have stepped down as Whitefish’s city planning and building director, but his work is far from done.

Earlier this month, Horne resigned as the city’s first planning director, but he is still under contract with Whitefish to oversee the adoption of a new growth policy that he helped write over the past 16 months. Horne and a steering committee recently handed a draft of the policy over to the Whitefish City-County Planning Board, which presented it to the public May 22. The board will now work with the community, Whitefish’s planning department and Horne to revise and, eventually, adopt it.

During two years as planning and building director, Horne left his mark. The wake of his tenure has left both adamant supporters and vocal critics in the community, which he said is to be expected from a job that generates significant change.

People have called him a “polarizing and divisive” figure, Horne said, and accused him of having his own agenda.

Such accusations are unfair, according to Steering Committee Chair Dru Jackman. She said Horne’s critics placed unnecessary pressure on him when he already had a lot on his shoulders.

Jackman believes that pressure contributed to Horne’s resignation, but he said he stepped down for other reasons.

“I’m not sure that they were realistic,” she said of the accusations.

Nearly every weekend she drove past the planning department, Jackman said she saw Horne’s truck parked outside, as well as many weekday nights. Despite his dedication, she said, a small but influential group of critics formed that held significant sway with certain city officials.

“I knew that he was getting a lot of pressure from above,” she said. “I think (his critics) have ears up high that the rest of us don’t.”

“We were shocked and saddened to see him leave,” she added.

According to a local real estate agent, Horne implemented stringent and “irrational” agendas as planning director and then used them as negotiating tools. Another critic suggested he was starting “class warfare” with policies that benefited low-income residents.

Horne has heard all of this and more. He shrugs it off, saying no matter what he does or says people will still see it their way.

“Perception is reality,” he said.

Last year a temporary critical areas ordinance that Horne helped pass raised a hail of criticism. On March 19 a unanimous city council vote extended the ordinance until April 2 of next year. Before then, a critical areas advisory committee plans to draft permanent legislation that may or may not use the temporary ordinance, Horne said.

Critics of the ordinance are particularly angry about a specification prohibiting development on 30 percent slopes.

William and Theodora Walton sued the city last year because the ordinance restricted them from building a 4,900-square-foot home on a 45-degree slope in the Houston Point area overlooking Whitefish Lake. Flathead District Judge Ted Lympus ruled against the Waltons earlier this month.

Horne points out that Jackson, Wyo., and Colorado Springs, Colo., where he’s been involved in planning, restrict building on lower grades, with 25 percent-slope ordinances. Many other cities specify development restrictions on slopes between 25 and 40 percent.

Martin McGrew, president of the Whitefish Planning Board, said it’s important to remember that every area is different and the city needs empirical evidence about slopes specific to Whitefish.

“We need good quality research and evidence so we can adopt sound legislation,” he added.

Horne was city planning and building director in Great Falls for six years before coming to Whitefish, and headed up planning in Jackson for eight years prior to that. In all, he has been involved in city planning for 35 years. In that time, he has helped write numerous growth policies. He headed the drafting process in Great Falls and Jackson.

Both Horne and McGrew stress that a growth policy is a framework for legislation, but does not impose actual laws.

“It’s like the Constitution,” McGrew said.

Whitefish’s current growth policy, which operates off a 1996 master plan, is outdated for governing modern growth, Horne said.

“In my estimation, (the growth policy) should have been done five years ago,” he added. “It’s critical now.”

According to Jackman, Horne is the reason the current growth policy exists.

“Bob wrote the bulk of it,” Jackman said. “Truthfully, we’d be lost without him.”

The Whitefish City-County Growth Policy is a sweeping document of nearly 100 pages outlining a plan to steer Whitefish’s rapid growth and emphasizing sustainability. It contains seven elements: natural resources, economic development, land use, community facilities, housing, intergovernmental coordination and transportation.

McGrew said that a rapidly developing area like Whitefish needs a clear plan.

“It’s like a map,” McGrew said. “It’s an important document that will help Whitefish plan responsibly.”

McGrew said that Horne is vital in taking the policy to the next step: adoption.

“His input is invaluable,” McGrew said. “Bob’s an excellent planner.”

A draft of the policy can be found at www.planitwhitefish.com.