Hiring Another Scapegoat Won’t Help Planning

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County commissioners won’t be renewing county planner Jeff Harris’s contract. I’m sure the Citizens for a Better Flathead cadre are watering their wine with tears, while American Dream Montana members are doing handsprings and cartwheels. I’ll confess to smiling a little – but not much.

The intensity of reaction from both sides makes it obvious that Flathead County’s planning and zoning process (plus Whitefish and Kalispell) has deteriorated to an unacceptable level of political partisanship – in large part because our county commissioners let it happen.

Hiring another scapegoat to replace Harris won’t work any better than stuffing a new operator in the cab of a broken-down track hoe. The broken machine must be repaired first, or the new operator won’t be able to fix the sewer, ever.

The Flathead County planning process itself needs to be restructured, from its current dysfunctional form back into what it should be.

What should “planning” be? Planning is defined in the dictionary as formulating a program in order to accomplish a goal – i.e., invading Europe to get Hitler, investing to get a good retirement, laying out tonight’s supper, or, yep, laying out a community.

Go to the thesaurus for synonyms, and you get blueprint, contemplate, engineer, formulate, invent, make arrangements, organize, shape, work out. Other terms include conspire, intrigue, plot, scheme, of which we’ve had plenty. My favorite is project – as in intend, forecast, visualization.

It’s also important to consider the antonyms for “project:” Forget, ignore, neglect. Why? Well, planning doesn’t work if you forget, ignore, or neglect the consequences.

Remember the old military truism: “No plan ever survives contact with the enemy?” Seems that goes double in planning … attacking growth as the enemy via rigid, cumbersome planning hasn’t worked very well.

Sure, there’s lip service for “guiding” growth, but let’s be real. Despite all the effort dumped into prescribing rules and regulations aimed at delaying, deflecting or halting growth, it’s clear that “planning” hasn’t delivered the results we want, even in the most basic matters.

Let’s examine infrastructure, minus esthetics, environment, viewsheds, property rights and all the other political frou-frou, starting with the Hutton Ranch/Reserve Loop intersection: Apparently, while everyone was obsessing about the “dark skies” lights at Lowe’s, nobody responsible considered aligning the intersection, setting in new concrete a difficult and dangerous left turn problem.

On a larger scale, there is Willow Glen versus the West Side bypass. Neither option is particularly attractive at this point, but I prefer the Glen option.

First, the “spine” of our transportation network runs along La Salle, and a giant share of the Flathead’s vehicle trips and ton-miles make the turn at Snappy’s. Second, the “weight” is more east than west. Third, most of the Glen option already exists…the Glen/Rainbow Bar cutoff has been a favorite “secret shortcut” for decades, and you can see the stoplight at Snappy’s through the trees. But … thanks to a classic failure to actually, um, “plan,” there are homes just north of the county shops literally on the road.

Now we’re committed to shoveling twice the dirt, and taxpayer money, for a part of the West Side bypass.

Why is West Side needed? Because all the retail refugees from the “Stop Bucky” battle royale (which began over on La Salle) needed someplace to set up camp. Hutton Ranch was available.

These are all just road issues, involving the most basic, least value-laden aspects of planning. The net results, of years worth of darn poor planning across multiple jurisdictions, raise the question of what would have happened without any planning process at all.

And now, with the process completely and utterly tied up in politics, values, and hidden agendas (such as with North Shore), the result of “planning” ends up far worse than nothing.

The folks responsible (not Mr. Harris) need to stop offering up goats and start offering up solutions.

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