The Flathead County commissioners’ final decision to rescind the interlocal agreement with Whitefish that established the now controversial “planning doughnut” was essentially made within a matter of minutes.
After beginning the hearing Thursday morning, Commissioner Gary Hall told the more than 50 people present the commissioners wouldn’t be taking public comment on the issue, and then called for a second on the motion to rescind. Commissioner Dale Lauman seconded the motion, and Hall immediately asked for a vote in favor. Lauman and Hall both said, “Aye,” as Commissioner Joe Brenneman interjected, asking for time for discussion.
Hall apologized – “Am I anxious to get this over? Yeah.” – and encouraged Brenneman to begin discussion. But 40 minutes later, after debate over the critical areas ordinance and the unknown effects of rescinding the agreement, the vote was the same: The commissioners voted 2-1, Hall and Lauman in favor, to rescind the agreement.
In 2003 county commissioners agreed to hand over planning power to the cities of Whitefish and Columbia Falls in the areas within a roughly two-mile radius of their respective city limits. In 2005, those agreements became official. Since then, the doughnut area has been controversial, reaching a head within the past year largely due to the drafting of Whitefish’s new growth policy and the critical areas ordinance, which is a storm water management law.
Brenneman challenged the motion to rescind, calling it “fatally flawed” and questioning the consequences of pulling the county’s support from the agreement. By withdrawing, he said, the county would open future land use decisions in the doughnut to potential lawsuits and leave doughnut residents without a discernible governing body or zoning.
“This in effect stops all growth in the doughnut area until this case gets carried to whatever level of legal procedure it goes through, up to and including the Supreme Court,” Brenneman said.
Hall, who has pushed for the county to take back authority over the doughnut area, said his support for rescinding the agreement “is not a commissioner-driven decision; it’s driven by county residents.”
He said doughnut residents had been ignored during Whitefish’s critical ordinance discussions and said, while unfortunate, rescinding the agreement was necessary to ensure fair representation. “This is an action that absolutely must be taken.”
Lauman agreed, saying he’d received more than 100 e-mails and phone calls from concerned doughnut residents, and called the decision a “property rights” and “regulation with representation” issue.
Whitefish officials have challenged the county’s ability to unilaterally rescind the agreement. In a letter sent to commissioners on Wednesday, Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps wrote that the agreement “can only be amended or terminated by joint agreement of the parties.” Commissioners seemed uncertain of the effects of their own decision and, while they disagreed on the best way to encourage communication, said they would encourage further discussions between all involved parties.
“You’re saying we should put this into the courts’ hands and see what they do, but once attorneys get involved you’re no longer talking to each other,” Brenneman said. “This confuses this further.”
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