Supreme Court Ruling Muddies Neighborhood Planning Rules

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County is seeing a surge in neighborhood planning that hasn’t occurred here in more than a decade. But questions over a recent state Supreme Court ruling have held up one plan already and may leave others in limbo.

In the early 1990s, a move for a county-wide growth policy failed, but there was still an outpouring in demand for neighborhood agreements – for regions ranging from West Valley to Bigfork. In less than five years, 10 new plans covered roughly 120,000 acres of the county.

A decision in January by the Montana Supreme Court – stemming from a disagreement over the meaning and intent of one of those plans – has given legal force to some neighborhood plans. Ensuing confusion over the regulatory power of those agreements delayed the Bigfork Neighborhood Plan last week and may lead to more litigation.

Most of the plans enacted in the 1990s were an effort to preserve the characteristics that residents felt made the communities and their landscape unique; an attempt, in the face of impending record population increases and land use changes, to provide a blueprint for orderly, controlled growth. They were usually a reaction to a controversial change – a major subdivision, a gravel pit, a wrecking yard or a large land sale.

Today there are signs of a resurgence as a handful of communities work to create new plans and existing agreements are revised to comply with the county growth policy adopted last March. Seven plans are undergoing revisions, while five more communities – Kila, Somers, the lower Flathead River area, East Valley and Marion – have expressed interest in developing new plans. The Riverdale community had its first neighborhood plan approved last November.

Proponents of the plans say they help neighbors, many with competing interests, develop a give-and-take vision for their community. Rather than generic standards applied by county officials over the whole valley, they say, neighborhood plans recognize the region’s unique differences and let residents in each area decide what land-use practices make the most sense for them.

Those opposed to neighborhood plans make the general arguments against any sort of increased land-use regulation. But detractors also offer more specific criticisms: neighborhood planning creates a piecemeal scatter board throughout the region rather than a cohesive vision; it puts small landowners unfairly on par with large landowners; and it’s an attempt to keep things the “way they were” and stop all growth.

For now, however, arguments regarding the value of the plans are suspended while the county sorts out the answer to another question: Are neighborhood plans legally binding?

To the county commissioners, planners and several neighborhood planning committees the answer is obvious: absolutely not. Neighborhood plans, by design, are a framework for zoning, they say. The plans identify issues and opportunities and set goals and objectives to reach a uniquely tailored vision of an area. It’s a guideline for future land use decisions, and also, if the community wants, a guideline to implement zoning regulations.

“The growth policy is a vision for the county, a broader look; it’s not nearly specific enough to get down to the ground in these individual communities,” Jeff Harris, county planning director, said. “That’s where neighborhood plans come in, as a more detailed and individualized guideline. They’re absolutely not regulatory – we’ve never treated them that way, and won’t be treating them that way.”

But the Montana Supreme Court disagreed in a case regarding a proposed West Valley gravel pit and a community group, saying, in short, that if a neighborhood plan was more stringent than the zoning, then the county had to follow the neighborhood plan.

The county is working on text amendments to its zoning that would revert neighborhood agreements back to their intended advisory state, but the county planning board isn’t scheduled to move on that revision until June 18.

In light of the ruling, the planning board struggled with the regulatory or advisory nature of the plans when reviewing the North Fork neighborhood plan in February. Ultimately that plan passed, but when similar questions seemed poised to stymie a decision last week among board members regarding the Bigfork Neighborhood Plan, Assistant Planning Director B.J. Grieve encouraged the board to wait until mid-June to workshop and vote on Bigfork’s plan.

“I know that’s a long time away, but then this issue will be resolved one way or another and you can meet to discuss the plan without this hanging over your heads,” he said.

It’s a disappointing setback for those involved in the Bigfork plan, who after four years of work and 170 public meetings thought they were in the final stages of the planning process.

Most neighborhood councils regard their plans as successes, saying, if nothing else, they helped galvanize and unite their communities. When the West Valley plan was introduced in the mid-1990s it received widespread support and cooperation from a diverse mix of landowners. But proposed gravel pits later split the neighborhood and took residents, the county and a local business to the state’s highest court. West Valley residents say the county’s current move to make the neighborhood plans advisory is a backhanded attempt to undo the court’s ruling.

“I think it would be a terrible mistake for the commissioners to try to retroactively undo a decision of the Montana Supreme Court and invalidate the will of the people; it’s disingenuous,” Jack Tuholske, a lawyer who represented a group of West Valley residents in the dispute, said.

It’s uncertain how the current debate will progress – litigation from groups is possible if the language the Supreme Court deemed regulatory is removed or amended by the planning board and commissioners this summer – but until there’s a definite resolution it seems neighborhood plans will be left waiting in the wings.