When Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman wanted to discuss his idea to create “villages” in unincorporated areas with Evergreen residents he found himself at an impasse.
There was no one to talk to.
“I ended up meeting with the board of the Evergreen Fire Department,” he said, “because that’s about as organized a group as there is to represent that area.”
In fact, this lack of local representation is at the root of Brenneman’s push for state legislation that would allow unincorporated areas to form villages, a small representative body within the existing framework and control of county administration.
Elected village boards would act as a liaison to the county commission, making recommendations on regulations and needed services, and have some regulatory control over land use decisions. Brenneman has previously described the same concept under the name of “townships,” but that word already has other uses in state law.
Flathead County’s three commissioners each represent an immense swath of county land, and because this county is unique in that most of its residents live outside local municipalities, they wield regulatory control over the majority of the population. Brenneman’s district includes the county’s two largest unincorporated areas – Bigfork and Evergreen.
“In Evergreen you have 9,000 people represented by only one elected official – me – and maybe they’re happy with that,” he said. “But I think it’s worthwhile to give them at least the option to elect five more people with the ability to bring proposals to the commission for things specific to their area.”
“It’s about community self-determination,” he added.
Incorporating isn’t feasible in several of these areas, because of cost and state law, local officials say, so the village concept provides a viable middle ground.
In Bigfork, a study showed that incorporating would increase taxes there by about 25 percent, according to John Bourquin, a member of the Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee. Also, state law requires an area to have a minimum of 500 residents per square mile in order to be incorporated, meaning that much of the broader Bigfork area would be excluded.
“We could punch it out maybe three square miles; basically, just downtown and Eagle’s Crest,” Bourquin said. “It would be terribly expensive and it still leaves all the areas surrounding Bigfork, which are the fastest growing, in the county’s control.”
Evergreen is hindered by another state law: Areas within three miles of an incorporated city can’t incorporate unless they first ask for annexation into the existing city and are turned down. With no representative board there, it’s hard to gauge whether Evergreen residents would even want annexation or incorporation.
“We support the village concept,” Craig Williams, Evergreen’s fire chief, said. “There’s no political platform here. The community has historically rallied around the fire department and the fire department has acted as the community voice, but there could be more.”
Since convincing Sen. David Wanzenried, D-Missoula, to put in a bill request last year, Brenneman has acted as the point man with the state’s legislative staff to cast the bill’s language.
In its draft form, the bill says the question of creating a village can be put on the ballot either by a resolution from the commission or a petition signed by 15 percent of voters within the village’s proposed boundaries. Those boundaries would be determined by the commission or petitioners with the help of a professional surveyor and would have to be contiguous, but there would be no specific size or population requirements.
If the majority of voters living in the area approved the village, residents there would elect a village board of three to five local representatives. Commissioners could levy a tax not to exceed one mill to cover the administrative costs of beginning a village government.
The villages would still be governed by the county commission, but the village board would make recommendations to the commission on which regulations, services, improvements, taxes and fees should be implemented.
“For example, some areas would like services beyond what the county already provides, but the county can’t with good conscious appropriate more money to them because there are so many other needs,” Brenneman said. “This way, the people in that area could choose to fund some of those services themselves, without having the full expense of incorporating.”
Even more attractive to some county residents is the added control their village board would have over local land-use decisions. Several land-use boards already exist in communities throughout the county, but those boards are only advisory. A village board, however, would have some regulatory control.
For example, if a subdivision were proposed in a village the applicant would go to the village board – just as they do with the current advisory boards. If the village board approved the project, it would continue on the county planning board and commission, as it does now. But if the village board denied the project, the application would die there or need to be revised until it passed the local board.
The village board would have to enforce land-use designations within the scope of the law, Brenneman said, and in the case of a lawsuit, the county would be responsible for defending the board.
“When Bigfork started looking at incorporation a few years ago it was largely because residents wanted a better way to have local control over planning and zoning issues,” Bourquin said. “A few projects came in that fired everybody’s rockets off. There was a lot of back-and-forth and people felt like decisions weren’t really reflecting the community.”
But before villages appear in the Flathead, the bill needs to be officially introduced by a legislator and then garner enough support from representatives throughout the state to pass through the House and Senate.
Harold Blattie, director of the Montana Association of Counties, said he thought the bill’s basic premise was broad enough to appeal to several of the state’s counties, pointing to unincorporated places like Lockwood, near Billings, as other possible villages.
Still, bills often die in committee, face unexpected opposition or become partisan issues in the Legislature, and even one amendment can drastically change a bill’s intent.
“I can hopefully get it that far,” Brenneman said, “but once it’s in their hands you never totally know.”
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