Group Challenges Legality of County’s Greenbelt Zone

By Beacon Staff

A local nonprofit group has filed a lawsuit against the Flathead County Commission over a recently created business zoning option.

The lawsuit, filed by Citizens for a Better Flathead and Flathead resident Sharon DeMeester, seeks to void the county’s B-2HG zone, known as the general business highway greenbelt zone.

It is also asking Flathead District Court to overturn the county commissioners’ resolution of intent to change 64 acres of land on U.S. Highway 93 from an agricultural zone to the greenbelt zone.

Adopted by the Flathead County Commission on July 27, the greenbelt zone designates a business district along a primary or secondary highway, following specific mitigation requirements, such as building heights and enhanced signage and lighting standards. It also requires a greenbelt, with prescribed percentages of the property to be dedicated for setbacks.

There are 27 permitted uses in the greenbelt zone, and 36 conditional use possibilities.

According to Mayre Flowers, executive director at Citizens for a Better Flathead, the new zone is inconsistent with the Flathead County Growth Policy’s stance on strip development between towns.

“Primarily we’re arguing from an economic view, that this doesn’t make economic sense,” Flowers said in an interview last week.

Allowing these zones on the highways between the valley’s towns would promote strip development away from urban centers, Flowers said, and could degrade the land value for neighbors and hurt the character of the area.

In the complaint filed on Jan. 6, Citizens for a Better Flathead said neither the greenbelt zone nor the proposed zoning change were made in accordance with the growth policy, noting that maintaining the “identity of rural communities” is a major element valued by Flathead residents.

“Specific concerns under this element include preventing communities from growing together and losing their unique identities, continuous sprawl development in communities and strip malls and other commercial uses being developed between communities,” the suit states.

Flowers said it is important to look at the long-term planning goals for the county.

“It’s really important that it’s done right when it is done,” she said of planning. “Once a policy like this is put in places, it’s there essentially forever.”

Flathead County Planning and Zoning Director BJ Grieve said he found the lawsuit perplexing, because much of the land that the group fears will become strip development is unzoned and can be used in any manner the owner prefers.

Grieve said the greenbelt zone was created by a group of landowners, known as Noonen et al, who wanted a softer alternative to the general B-2 business zone. The greenbelt zone is more restrictive, Grieve said, and would definitely be more restrictive than unzoned land.

“Most of those highways are entirely unzoned, and those owners can do what they want,” Grieve said. “If they want to have strip development, they can break ground tomorrow.”

There have been several amendments to the Flathead County Zoning Map in recent years, he noted, including changes from agriculture to general business near Happy Valley in 2007 and 2008.

“They passed and Citizens for a Better Flathead didn’t protest those,” Grieve said. “Overall, we find it very disturbing that Citizens for a Better Flathead and Sharon DeMeester have chosen to file a lawsuit in this manner.”

Grieve also noted that any zone changes would be subject to public procedure, and adding the greenbelt zone to the county’s options does not automatically create zoning.

Flowers said the county has not been consistent in following the growth policy and her group has not been able to challenge every decision from the county commission. Nearly 900 residents spoke up against the greenbelt zone, she said, and it is time to ask the courts to review the issue.

“We have consistently spoken out and encouraged the commissioners to respect the pattern of growth called for in the growth policy,” Flowers said. “It is with great reluctance that we go to the mat and go to the court to address this but the pattern of development that this new zone opens up is so sweeping that we chose to ask the court to review this.”

Flowers also noted that the Flathead County Planning Board is reviewing the greenbelt requirements for a B-2HG zone and could recommend striking the provision mandating a greenbelt in place within a year of development.

There is a show-cause hearing scheduled for this lawsuit on Feb. 2.