County Weakens Neighborhood Plans

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County commissioners voted last week on two contentious policy issues stemming from a Montana Supreme Court ruling last January over a West Valley community group and a West Valley gravel pit.

The commission voted 2-1 to approve a zoning text amendment that states all neighborhood plans are non-regulatory. In another 2-1 vote the same day, commissioners passed a second zoning amendment that aims to correct inconsistencies between state and local gravel pit permits.

In both cases, Commissioner Joe Brenneman cast the dissenting vote.

“I wasn’t fundamentally against either of the decisions,” he said. “I just thought they could’ve been better or made more clear.”

In January, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the county had improperly interpreted the West Valley Neighborhood Plan and county zoning regulations when approving a gravel pit application for the Tutvedt Family Partnership. In short, the court cited a piece of county regulation that stated 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, replacing it with language that clarified the plans “were not regulatory and do not confer any authority to regulate.”

Neighborhood plans are a framework for zoning, according to the county. They offer a guideline to develop more individualized goals for a particular region, and possibly, zoning regulations. “The (planning) staff believes the plans are not regulatory and the staff, to my knowledge, has never treated them that way,” Jeff Harris, county planning director, said.

But dozens of local residents disagreed, arguing fervently at public meetings over the last few months that the deletion would be a “backhanded attempt to undermine the Supreme Court ruling” and a “slap in the face” to the citizens who developed the plans.

Against the recommendation of county planning staff, the planning board rejected the zoning text amendment in June, instead forwarding a recommendation to county commissioners suggesting a grace period until 2010 for older plans to be updated, before they lose regulatory power.

The commissioners, though, approved the planning staff’s version of the amendment, without adding a timeline, turning neighborhood plans non-regulatory as of last week.

All three commissioners agreed the plans shouldn’t be regulatory. Brenneman, though, said he’d like more time to think about the amendment and suggested the commission find a middle ground between the planning board and planning staff’s recommendations, before casting his nay vote.

In its ruling on the West Valley gravel case, the Supreme Court also noted a contradiction in application rules between the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and the county in its decision to override approval of the pit, and put the onus on the county to fix the problem.

County zoning regulations required that the DEQ approve a gravel pit’s plan for development before the county’s Board of Adjustment could grant a conditional use permit. In a classic Catch-22 situation, the DEQ required that conditional use permit before approving the development plan.

The county’s planning and zoning office had recommended the county delete the sentence in the zoning regulations that required DEQ approval first. Instead, the planning board rewrote the sentence to say the Board of Adjustment can grant their permit without state approval, but the applicant must first submit the same environmental information required by the state to the local board.

In this case the commission closely followed the board’s suggestion, ruling that a plan submitted to the county must include all the information required by the DEQ for the same application.

Again Brenneman dissented, saying he wasn’t sure the new language made it clear to either the public or the applicant exactly what the county wanted.

“I didn’t feel certain that we knew exactly what we were going to get as a result of either of these changes,” he said.