The Flathead County Planning Board decided to move forward with discussion on the Lakeside neighborhood plan, despite an active lawsuit accusing county officials of violating state and local laws by secretly conducting planning efforts.
The Oct. 7 planning board meeting was generally congenial, a shift from the explosive nature of previous meetings on the neighborhood plan.
Board member Jeff Larsen, however, was intentionally absent for the meeting. He wrote an e-mail to the board explaining his absence as a reaction to a lawsuit filed against the Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee, Flathead County and Jeff Harris, director of the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Department.
The lawsuit, filed by property owners from Lakeside and Somers, alleges that the LNPC and the planning office knowingly held private meeting and set up a “secret” Web site to discuss public matters, violating several Montana Constitution statutes and open meeting laws, and circumventing the public’s right to know.
In his e-mail, Larsen wrote that the planning board should not move forward with the neighborhood plan without a decision on the injunction from the court.
“I believe the process that the Lakeside plan went through was not in compliance with state law or the Montana Constitution,” Larsen wrote. He also urged other board members to reread their oaths to uphold the Constitution before continuing to discuss the plan.
“For me to participate in this process would be a violation of my notarized oath,” Larsen wrote.
Board Chairman Gordon Cross said that while he applauds Larsen for his integrity, he is content to let the legal issues be decided in court. Cross also referenced advice from the county attorney’s office that the board should carry on with the neighborhood plan workshop.
Board member Charles Lapp wanted to take a vote to see how many board members support the idea of moving forward before the issue is decided in court, but Cross said it was unnecessary.
The meeting progressed with little ado, as members discussed every page of the 157-page plan and aired concerns about punctuation and clarifying phrases.
One concern came from a goal in the plan that would not allow commercial development on the north and south ends of U.S. Highway 93, which runs through the town. Board members thought the concept was too harsh and said over-development concerns should be mitigated through different means.
They also stressed the importance of creating flexible zoning that could allow for all types of growth within the plan’s boundaries.
The LNPC will address these concerns before the planning board schedules a public hearing on the plan.
The neighborhood plan controversy began when a group of citizens in Lakeside and Somers found that the volunteer LNPC was using a private Yahoo! group Web site to share information and drafts of the plan.
The planning department has responded to the allegations, saying the claims of secret meetings are embellished and unsupported. The planning office and the LNPC have acknowledged the Yahoo! site’s use and said it was remedied when concerns arose.
Flathead District Judge Stewart Stadler will consider an injunction at a show-cause hearing on Oct. 16. If successful, the lawsuit would derail over two years of work on the plan.
The situation has escalated after several explosive public meetings, which included calls for Harris’ resignation and allegations of fiscal abuse. County commissioners hired a private detective to look into the allegations, an investigation that is still ongoing.
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