Flathead Planning Draws Critics, but Not Applicants

By Beacon Staff

Despite planning being a hot-button topic in the Flathead Valley, county officials are still looking for two people to serve on the Flathead County Planning Board, more than three months after they first advertised the openings.

Five of the nine planning board members’ terms ended in December, and two more resigned halfway through their two-year terms. Of the seven openings, three members were reappointed and, in mid-December, county commissioners appointed two new board members.

On the third call for applicants, two spots still remain – one a full two-year term, the other a one-year appointment.

“The first time around we had 11 applicants,” Mary Sevier, office administrator at the county’s planning department, said. “Every year is different, and this year has been a bit more haywire than most, but it’s not uncommon for us to have only a few people apply.”

This despite the heavy attention paid to local land-use decisions.

In recent years, as the county’s population has boomed, so has public interest in the planning process. Planning board meetings, like an October riparian setback meeting, have drawn hundreds of spectators. Well-organized groups on opposite sides of planning issues maintain a strong presence at many forums.

Individuals and groups unhappy with growth decisions have sued the county; at least 10 lawsuits involving zoning or subdivision decisions have been filed in the last year.

County officials say while the fervor surrounding planning issues draws citizens to meetings, it’s also likely what keeps some people away from the board. “I think people realize they’d be putting themselves in the middle of some pretty heated debates,” County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said. “That, along with the time commitment, I think discourages some very qualified people.”

Volunteers commit to at least two meetings per month, workshop meetings and several hours slogging through planning documents.

“I don’t lie to people when they call,” Sevier said. “When they ask how much time it takes, I tell them it’s a lot. One man called and told me he works about 60 to 65 hours a week. I told him he probably didn’t want to spend what little free time he had with us.”

For new member Rita Hall, the time obligations are the biggest downside of serving on the board. Hall, an employee at Flathead Industries’ Whitefish location, lives 25 miles north of Whitefish and about an hour drive from the meeting venue.

Both Hall and Marc Pitman, a civil engineer at APEC and the board’s other newest member, joked that they may be “crazy” or “looney” for volunteering for the board, but felt it was a good community service opportunity in an area where they both had considerable experience.

“If I didn’t have some background in this it would’ve been totally overwhelming when they handed me that book of subdivision and zoning regulations Christmas week,” Pitman said. “As it was, I was like ‘Oh my goodness.’”

To be eligible for the county planning board applicants have to be a county resident living outside of city planning jurisdictions and own the land they live on.

Brenneman said county commissioners also look for people with planning experience, but without obvious conflicts. “In order to make the person useful to the board, we need people who wouldn’t have to recuse themselves from votes all the time. Ideally they’d be fairly balanced and a good listener; not someone out to push an ideological agenda.”

The planning office will continue to take applications until Feb. 6 and hopes to fill the spots immediately after that date.

“Right now, they have subdivision regulations and neighborhood plans that we really need a full board to be able to address effectively,” Sevier said.