Crowder Seeks to Stunt Growth Policy

By Beacon Staff

As chairman for American Dream Montana, Russell Crowder is no stranger to the battle over property rights in Flathead County.

This year, the group is embarking on one of its biggest challenges by attempting to get a referendum to repeal the Flathead County Growth Policy on the November ballot.

The county adopted the growth policy in 2007. It provides guidance for the county’s growth, pertaining to goals such as protecting water quality and identifying appropriate land use for an area while “protecting public health, safety, morals, convenience, order or general welfare.”

Though the growth policy is not regulatory, Crowder said he believes it gives the Flathead County Commission too much power to make decisions for the entire population, citing zoning as an example. Property owners, he argues, could take some of that power back by repealing it.

The language of the proposed referendum calls for repealing the growth policy everywhere in the county except the two miles surrounding Whitefish, also known as the “doughnut.” Crowder said that area was left alone because removing the growth policy there could complicate an ongoing lawsuit pertaining to whether the city or county has jurisdiction over the area.

When asked why a referendum is necessary, Crowder said the commission, despite being largely dominated by Republicans for years, has not done enough to protect property owners.

“I think we’ve finally given up on trying to do this through the political process,” Crowder said.

By getting rid of the growth policy, any new zoning would need the approval of 60 percent of the affected residents, a process often called citizen-initiated zoning, according to planning officials.

Other regulations not connected with the growth policy, such as subdivision regulations and floodplain regulations, would still exist.

However, planning officials see few black-and-white outcomes of a repeal.

“The accurate answer is we don’t know how it would pertain to every zoning district and every document that is retained under the growth policy,” BJ Grieve, assistant director for Flathead County Planning and Zoning, said.

The county currently uses Part Two Zoning, which means the county can initiate zoning. This category, used either to adopt new zones or to change existing ones, requires specific review criteria under Montana law.

The first of these criteria is that the zoning must comply with the growth policy.

“If you don’t have a growth policy, that’s a stumper,” Grieve said.

Ravalli County voters chose to repeal their growth policy with a similar referendum in 2008.

John Lavey, Ravalli County’s planning director, said any new zoning must now either be citizen initiated or interim zoning, which only lasts for two years. The county can no longer initiate zoning, Lavey said.

“That’s probably the most significant effect it’s had on us,” Lavey said.

Repealing the growth policy also meant repealing the one neighborhood plan in the county, Lavey said. It also affected any existing zones created under the growth policy, he added.

Flathead County Deputy Attorney Peter Steele said it is unclear what repealing the growth policy would mean for some plans, such as those for parks or transportation.

Existing zones would most likely stay the way they are, but the county would have little room to change them, Steele said.

“If they repeal the growth policy the zoning is going to stay there, we just won’t be able to do any more zoning,” Steele said.

Flathead County’s neighborhood plans, however, would be repealed along with the growth policy because they are addendums to the policy, Steele said.

Currently, the referendum is still in the process of becoming an official petition. The county attorney’s office has until May 31 to draft the official language and American Dream Montana will have 90 days to collect signatures from 15 percent of the residents who live outside of city limits.

Officials in the county election office said that means roughly 5,800 signatures. Crowder said his group hopes to collect 8,000 in case some signatures are thrown out on technicalities.

If it garners enough verified signatures, the referendum would be placed on the November general election ballot.

Political timing will play a major role in the success of the referendum, Crowder said. With a trend toward anti-establishment candidates in primary elections across the nation, American Dream Montana hopes to strike while the conservative iron is hot, Crowder said.

“If the property owners can’t take their rights back this election season they won’t be able to do it,” Crowder said.

Successfully repealing the growth policy could also give a more accurate picture of how much political and social influence American Dream Montana has in the Flathead.

Crowder, who said he was not authorized by the group’s board to disclose its members or its enrollment numbers, claims American Dream Montana is “very influential” in the valley.

The group does not, however, take any official positions on elections, Crowder said.

Mickey Lapp, a self-described conservative Republican who said she has run the campaigns of six local Republican candidates and consulted on numerous others, said American Dream Montana may be easier to peg politically if voters repeal the growth policy.

“That would be a real test of whether or not they have any political pull, if they can manage to get the growth policy overturned in this cycle,” Lapp said. “Until that takes place, any political influence can only be perceived.”

Crowder began his foray into planning in 1993 after observing proposed Master Plan updates. The Master Plan preceded the growth policy. In his opinion, the process was not based on responsible planning but rather on politics.

He said he initially got involved with the idea that he could help eliminate the politics. That, Crowder said, was naive on his part.

“To fight a political agenda you need to realize you’re right in the middle of it,” Crowder said.

Crowder was appointed to the Flathead County Planning Board from 2000 to 2004, during the growth policy’s formation. Even then, he said there were problems reconciling the requirements of state law with the constitutional rights of private property owners.

American Dream Montana has been active for about six years, created after Crowder was not reappointed to the Planning Board.

Critics have accused American Dream Montana of bullying and intimidation tactics, charges Crowder refuted.

And while he admitted some of the group’s advertisements have been controversial because they have specifically called out people by name, Crowder said public officials are fair game if the criticism is accurate.

Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, said her group promotes the idea of a growth policy because it ensures the Flathead will retain its character through development.

“We believe that we can grow in a way that keeps the valley special and do it cost-effectively,” Flowers said.

If American Dream Montana has problems with the growth policy, Flowers said they should offer an alternative solution instead of just removing it.

“The more voices that come to the table, you always get a better decision and I think my challenge to American Dream would be to provide constructive guidance on the vision of how our community should grow,” Flowers said.

Grieve said the planning office’s function is to serve the citizens of the Flathead, so it will follow whatever voters choose should the referendum make it to the ballot in November. He did add that there could be other options to handle the situation than an all-out repeal.

“I would really hope that the parties that don’t care for the growth policy would be willing to come to the table to improve it or change it,” Grieve said. “I also understand their perspective, and it’s not our office’s position to go against the will of the people.”

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