It is time for Commissioner Gary Hall to tone down his rhetoric and allow for a more measured and rational discourse about the relationship between Whitefish and Flathead County. Recent newspaper reports indicate Mr. Hall would like Whitefish to adopt a gateway planning approach more like that of Columbia Falls. I seriously doubt the majority of his constituents – developers included – who live within the two-mile zone around Whitefish, would favor this same approach or philosophy.
Mr. Hall has repeatedly remarked that the Whitefish planning approach has rendered the property of some around Whitefish virtually worthless. Anyone who has looked at property values around Whitefish lately knows that this statement is simply not true.
The truth is that Whitefish planning and zoning rules may be keeping a few vocal constituents from cashing out their land for a massive amount of money instead of merely a big sum of money. However, it is also quite possible that if many county property owners along the highways outside of Whitefish sold out for commercial development –like that which has taken place between Columbia Falls and Evergreen, and which Mr. Hall seems to advocate – these same property owners would discover their property values declining in the face of unstructured, unrestricted commercial sprawl.
I don’t think careful consideration for community planning has made any Whitefish area landowner the poorer. Rather, it is the foresight and the progressive vision of the town of Whitefish that has made the community a very ideal place to live. Measured community consideration has made the town an attractive investment for developers and has caused increases in property values that exceed those of surrounding communities.
What Mr. Hall fails to recognize – at least in his public expressions – is that the property rights of our neighbors and communities also deserve consideration and concern. Property owners do not exist in isolation, but as part of broader communities that share common resources that add value to the land and structures owned by individuals. These resources include safe roads, schools, hospitals, police, fire services and clean water. Further value is created by community investment in parks, downtown vitality, trails and open space. I have no doubt that the few property owners surrounding Whitefish wishing to cash-out for commercial development would promote these very qualities and resources found in Whitefish as reasons why their land should command an extravagant price. It just doesn’t seem fair for these few county property owners to have it both ways. They enjoy all of the amenities and investments of the neighboring town of Whitefish without paying any Whitefish taxes – and they want to furthermore be exempt from following any of the rules and considerations of their neighboring community – the one that has helped add so much value to their property.
Counties like Flathead have traditionally been rural in nature. It is when county commissioners enable urban developments in an otherwise rural county landscape they start to get in trouble. Some developers have decided that it is easier to get their way in the more laid-back, unrestricted county regulatory environment. Rural counties usually have fewer rules – largely because they haven’t yet had to accommodate the complex and conflicting demands of more city-style developments and populations. When developers can operate in the freewheeling county environment while simultaneously leveraging the amenities, investments and resources of a neighboring community like Whitefish, they are unfairly gaming the system. County commissioners should respect and embrace the rural nature of their county landscapes – for these are the values county residents most cherish. When commissioners begin to accommodate and foster commercial-city development in places with rural infrastructure, things begin to turn ugly and sometimes deadly.
County taxes for all residents have risen dramatically over the years as developers have placed more and more urban-style developments spread-out into what has traditionally been a rural county domain. The reason is that these developments require and demand city-style infrastructure and resources the county is not equipped to provide. Community safety also suffers. How many lives have been lost to traffic accidents at busy commercial junctions in the county because of inadequate highway traffic and intersection planning along Highway 2? This summer, drivers along some rural county roads were turned back by sheriff deputies because development-routed traffic had kicked-up so much dust it was becoming a health hazard for area residents.
Some county commissioners seem to be losing their grip on the proper and responsible stewardship of the rural county landscape. Instead of pandering to those commercial developers wishing to avoid dealing with cities, they should instead be looking with earnest accommodation to work with local city councils that are carefully considering their community gateways and values. This is in the best interest of both city residents and the vast majority of county residents who desire that their county landscapes remain largely rural in character. If our current crop of county commissioners won’t stand up for the rural character and values of Flathead County, we will all work hard to find some who will.
John Frandsen lives in Whitefish
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