KILA – On the highway leading to Kila there’s a sign, understated in size and message, that asks, “Got Water?”
It’s there to make people think, Helen Pilling explained. It’s also evidence of an otherwise sleepy community raising its voice, if only a decibel, to exert some control over how its community grows – a now common theme in Flathead Valley.
As development approaches, rural neighborhoods are banding together more tightly, speaking out at government meetings and taking legal action when they feel ignored.
“They’re holding us to a higher standard of performance and that’s a good thing,” Commissioner Joe Brenneman said. “I applaud their effort as frustrating as it may be sometimes.”
That frustration trickles down to developers who argue that the litigation causes delays and increases expenses, which are eventually passed on to buyers. But as the long arms of growth reach the outskirts of Flathead County’s cities, more developers face assiduous new neighbors.
Kila is home to a diverse, albeit uniformly hardy, population. Pilling makes a living building musical instrument cases. Sitting next to her at a patio table at the Cottage Inn off Highway 2 were a blacksmith, an organic rancher and a veterinarian; the town’s third-largest employer.
South of the inn lies one of the reasons why residents here have spoken up. The groundwork for the Haskill Mountain Ranch subdivision is nearly underway, which would divide more than 500 acres into 74 lots – adding a sizable chunk to a sparse population.
Last year, the Flathead County Planning Board unanimously recommended denial of the project – citing concerns about lot size, emergency services and (the reason for the sign) water – but the Flathead County commissioners approved Haskill Mountain in a 2-1 vote. Commissioners Gary Hall and Bob Watne argued that their initial concerns had been mitigated, citing, for one, a nearby road the developers agreed to pave. Brenneman cast the lone “nay,” saying the subdivision was fundamentally incompatible with the rest of the adjacent land.
With the commission’s go-ahead, cheers in Kila following the Planning Board’s rejection of the project soon faded. In a recent interview, Kila resident Colleen Wade said the “county wasn’t listening.”
So the Kila-Smith Lake Community Coalition did what others had before: It sued the county commissioners, accusing them of violating subdivision regulations, county growth policy, the Montana Constitution and the right to participate in the public process. Until a thorough review of the project is completed, the coalition wants the approval overturned.
Since it was filed in November, the suit has grown to an inch-thick as motions, responses and affidavits have piled up. It’s now awaiting Flathead County District Judge Ted Lympus’s ruling on a motion to dismiss.
The lawsuit is not the first of its kind. The county has faced multiple land-use suits in the last several years, yet almost always prevailed. But many of those wins were before the Pressentine Ranch decision.
A group, Neighbors Over the Aquifer, sued the commission in 2005 after the county approved the Pressentine Ranch, an 84-lot subdivision proposed along the Helena Flats Road in Lake County. But last summer, District Judge Katherine Curtis overturned the approval, citing an incomplete environmental assessment. Ever since, the case has been cited by other District Courts when ruling on subdivision suits.
In the Kila case, Roger Sullivan, the attorney for the coalition and landowners Charles and Catherine Meyer, is arguing many of the same points. And armed with Curtis’ ruling, he thinks Kila has a stronger leg upon which to stand.
“These are important cases,” said Sullivan, who declined to comment on the specifics of the Kila suit. “Not only to the plaintiffs with interest in the immediate controversy, but they’re also important to the larger community and I believe, in fact, important to the future generations.”
Deputy County Attorney Jonathan Smith opted not to comment on the active case, but Sean Frampton, representing Florida Flathead, the company which owns Haskill Mountain and has intervened in the lawsuit, said the Pressentine Ranch decision “is distinguishable from this case.”
“I’m not sure what they’re looking for in the environmental assessment that isn’t there,” Frampton said.
“Those who disagree with development or the decisions by elected officials can vote for a commissioner that supports their point of view,” Frampton wrote in his motion to dismiss.
The Kila case is another example where the volunteer Planning Board, buried under a glut of subdivision proposals, disagrees with the Flathead County Commission. The board has argued, given its workload, that it can’t spend the necessary time remedying each application. And the county commission has argued it needs more information, specifically in regard to environmental impacts, to make final decisions.
Developers have complained about the mixed messages. And communities feel like, as Wade put it, “no one is watching.”
But the public is watching. Thus, Planning Board meetings often draw large crowds in Flathead County. Last winter, as Haskill Mountain Ranch was in the planning process, some Kila residents attended meetings every week, sometimes twice.
“It’s not that we don’t want growth,” Wade said. “We just want to be part of the discussion.”
And now, if they feel ignored, rural neighborhoods are apt to elbow their way into the conversation.
Until recently, when a developer proposed building an airstrip next to town, Kila residents were less vocal. “It brought everybody out,” Wade said of the proposal, which the developer eventually abandoned.
Kila residents say they’re solution-oriented. When a school bond was rejected in the 1990s, advocates lowered the price tag and used volunteers to add on to the school. Pilling worked for 17 years to get the Rails to the Trails extended from Kalispell to Kila.
But growth, at least in terms of subdivisions, hit Kila’s radar a bit later than other parts of the Flathead. There are just a little more than 150 students that attend Kila’s kindergarten through eighth-grade school. But more people are coming and real estate isn’t cheap. In other words, Kila, with rural views and within a relatively short drive to Kalispell, has been discovered.
“The ultimate goal is to keep this place special,” Kila resident Alice Cabell said.
It’s unclear whether the precedent of the Pressentine Ranch decision will affect the Kila case. And residents there are the first to say they aren’t about lawsuits.
As growth seeps into rural communities, it has become apparent communities like Kila won’t be ignored. They won’t allow it.