County Planning: Easy Target, Tough Job

By Beacon Staff

Whether it’s dealing with neighbors who disagree over each other’s “lawn ornaments” of junk cars and rusted treasures or fielding complaints from either side of the growth debate, working at the county planning office is one of the most contentious jobs in the county.

It may also be one of the busiest.

“It’s kind of like the stock market,” BJ Grieve, assistant director of the county’s planning and zoning department, said. “You may have one week, or one month, or even one year that shows a decline in applications, but if you look at a five-year window, there’s a massive upward trend.”

The county’s breakneck speed of growth ¬– about a 5 percent population increase each year over the past six ¬– is evidenced in the planning office’s records of preliminary lot and subdivision approvals. In 2001, the county approved 274 preliminary lots and 36 preliminary subdivisions; by 2005, those numbers had ballooned to 1,690 lots and 134 subdivisions. The number of applications finally ebbed last year, when the numbers dropped to 671 and 60, respectively, after four years of dramatic increases.

And, while the numbers represent steady growth in the county, they’re also indicative of a heavy workload for the 13 people – six of them planners – employed by the county planning department.

The process for subdivision approvals – which include everything from beginning information interviews with a planner to review of impacts, comment from all affected service agencies, and public comment – can take months of work already, but the department is voluntarily adding more. “We’re moving toward a more quality review that addresses more concerns and includes more information,” Jeff Harris, county planning director, said. “The number of subdivision applications may be dropping, but that won’t necessarily mean less work; we’re seeing larger scale projects and investing more time.”

The acreage of approved final subdivisions was the only category to grow last year, a 22 percent jump from 2005.

While the public shows the most interest in subdivision planning, that’s only a small part of what planning office employees deal with on a weekly basis. The department is also in charge of enforcement; meaning when neighbors call with property boundary or “eyesore” complaints, it’s planners that make the investigative trip to the property. They hold public meetings, sometimes before hostile crowds, in towns from the Canyon to Bigfork. There is daily walk-in traffic and phone call questions to field: The office goal is to have answers within eight to 24 hours, whether the question is, “Where is the floodplain on my property?” or “Can I have a horse?”

Then, there is the long-term planning, an area where Harris said the county is admittedly lacking in some areas. “We know we need an affordable housing plan in the county, but it has to wait. It will happen, but right now, there are other things that have to happen first.” Those other things have been the county growth policy, followed by new subdivision regulations. A county transportation plan is now in the works. Harris said his department will continue to create broad-based plans for needs identified most often by the public in dozens of open meetings.

“You hear people say, ‘Growth pays for growth.’ Never. It never does,” Harris said.

The planning department isn’t the only service division to feel the catch-up pressures of steady growth. Departments from roads to sewers are often left struggling to keep up with ever-increasing demands. Pressures are felt similarly in counties throughout the state, where a sanitation officer or clerk and recorder may double as a de-facto county planner, Tammy McGill, vice president of the Montana planners association, said.

“Generally, across the state, planning departments are understaffed and searching for experience or expertise, people who have the education and also a background in Montana,” McGill said.

The Flathead County Planning Department is currently searching for two such planners. But, with a heavy workload, lower pay (a norm across most fields in Montana) and a job concerning issues where fault-finding comes from every side, locating the right candidate can be a challenge. “You put yourself in a contentious position, in a small state where you’re not isolated from the conflict,” McGill said. “It’s your neighbors and friends, the people you work with and see in the grocery store, and they’re right there to threaten lawsuits and call you names. But, we care about this state and how things change and grow here; that’s why we’re called planners not reactors.”