New Steps to Clarify Neighborhood Planning Approved

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County commissioners approved a new process for communities seeking to initiate neighborhood plans this week, a change that should make the steps simpler and clearer, planning officials said.

The first step in the new process is having the county commissioners determine when the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office can formally begin helping a community develop a neighborhood plan.

“I think that’s where we’ve had problems,” Commissioner Dale Lauman said at the Jan. 13 meeting. “Some people assume we’re getting involved when we shouldn’t be.”

Lauman and Commissioner Jim Dupont approved the new approach; Commissioner Joe Brenneman was absent from the meeting.

If the commission gives the planning office the go-ahead, the staff may formally begin providing information to the community about the planning process through a series of educational meetings. These meetings would not involve any actual work on a potential plan, Flathead County Planning Director Jeff Harris said.

The planning staff would also be responsible for gauging the support level within the community for a new neighborhood plan. Support levels would be judged based on written comments, verbal feedback, surveys and other communication at the meetings.

If there is enough interest to begin developing a neighborhood plan, the planning office will ask the commissioners to approve more resources and staff be devoted to helping the community. The commission and the planning office can determine whether or not there are adequate resources to pursue a plans.

The new process also promises more communication and updates between the planning office and the commissioners, Harris said. It demands that the planning office develop a work plan for the commissioners’ approval, which would include periodic updates “to ensure transparency in the process and keep the governing body abreast of any developments as the neighborhood planning effort progresses.”

All of the new steps would come into play before any involvement with the Flathead County Growth Policy. If a plan makes it through the new process, it would move forward by following the process outlined in the growth policy.

Lauman said the new steps would ensure that residents interested in a potential neighborhood plan would take the responsibility it.

“It will let the community do the footwork, not us do it for them,” Lauman said.

The process change had been in the works since it was discussed at a Nov. 18 meeting. After that meeting, Dupont acknowledged that the commission might take more heat from those opposed to neighborhood plans, but the system in place was too confusing and not working well. At the January meeting, Dupont reiterated that the new steps would make the process simpler.

Harris said the planning office is still able to answer questions from the public about the neighborhood planning process. If residents ask for staff help with developing a plan, however, they will be asked to make an appointment with the commissioners, Harris said.

County involvement in neighborhood planning is often a contentious issue in the Flathead, with the Lakeside and Somers neighborhood plans as recent examples. Opponents to those plans accused the county of improper and unwarranted involvement in neighborhood planning.