County Neighborhood Plan Solution Put on Hold

By Beacon Staff

A Flathead County Planning Board meeting last week meant to clarify the regulatory or advisory nature of neighborhood plans has instead left the intent of the plans still muddied, possibly extending a clear resolution for another year and a half.

Against the recommendation of county planning staff, the board rejected a zoning text amendment last Wednesday that would have made all neighborhood plans non-regulatory. The board forwarded a recommendation to county commissioners suggesting a grace period until 2010 for older plans to be updated, before they lose regulatory power.

The debate over whether neighborhood plans are regulatory or advisory in nature began with a dispute over a proposed West Valley gravel pit and an ensuing state Supreme Court decision in January.

Neighborhood plans are a framework for zoning, according to the county. The county growth policy, County Planning Director Jeff Harris said, is a broad vision for the county, while the neighborhood plans provide more individualized goals for a particular region. Alone the plans are not regulatory, he added, but, if the community wants, they can be used to develop zoning regulations.

“The (planning) staff believes the plans are not regulatory and the staff, to my knowledge, has never treated them that way,” Harris said.

The Montana Supreme Court disagreed. In the West Valley case it cited a section of county zoning regulations that said, in short, if a neighborhood plan was more stringent than the zoning, then the county had to follow the neighborhood plan.

In March, the county requested a text amendment to its zoning that would delete that section. After public comment suggested the deletion would have unintended consequences, the planning board asked Harris to further review the neighborhood plans.

The county’s revised request suggested the section instead be replaced with language clarifying the role of neighborhood plans as strictly non-regulatory documents. Again public comment was almost unanimously opposed to the change. Area residents called the proposed revision “deceitful” and “disingenuous,” a “backhanded attempt to undermine the Supreme Court ruling” and a “slap in the face” to the citizens who developed the plans.

“We’re using a sledgehammer approach, where there should be a flyswatter,” Roger Sullivan, an attorney for Flathead Citizens for Quality Growth, the community group involved in the gravel lawsuit, said.

Sullivan and Mayre Flowers, director of Citizens for a Better Flathead suggested a more gradual approach to protect neighborhoods from sudden, unbridled development.

The planning board agreed. Despite cautions from the county planning staff, the board reached what they said was a middle ground by suggesting neighborhoods have until 2010 to update their zoning and comply with the new growth policy.

According to the board’s recommended text amendment, neighborhood plans adopted or revised after the county’s current growth policy took effect in March 2007 will already be considered non-regulatory. Older neighborhood plans, however, wouldn’t become non-regulatory until January 1, 2010, giving communities time to implement zoning changes that would uphold the plan’s goals.

“It puts the onus on the neighborhoods to get with it and bring their plan into compliance with the growth policy,” Frank DeKort, a planning board member, said. “They can amend what they want or simply wait until the deadline and become non-regulatory.”

Planning staff cautioned against the deadline plan, with Harris saying he feared many neighborhoods would wait until the last minute in order to keep their plan regulatory as long as possible. He also said keeping the plans regulatory in the interim would create unique zoning districts that would be nearly impossible to administer.

Assistant planning director BJ Grieve said the deadline would create an “unfunded mandate” for the department, because current staffing wouldn’t allow the department to update all the plans in time. Bigfork’s revised neighborhood plan, set to go before the planning board this week, took more than three years to overhaul.

The board disagreed, though, voting unanimously to forward the recommendation to the county commissioners, who will have the final say on the regulatory nature of the plans. Another public comment hearing will be held before the final vote.

Related: Board Votes to Eliminate Gravel Pit Catch-22