Kalispell Refocuses on Its Growth Policy

By Beacon Staff

As economic development regains steam, the city of Kalispell is readdressing its blueprint for guiding and embracing growth.

Last week city staff and members of the planning board huddled together inside City Hall and began reviewing Kalispell’s 2020 growth policy. It was the first meeting in the latest review of the steering document, which is 10 years old, and arrives at a time when building permits, subdivision plats and commercial developments are rising.

“This really shapes the future of where we’re going and sets that framework so that as waves of development come, you’re ready to act,” Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz said.

The average resident who considers the valley as a single entity may not realize that separate communities grow with separate and unique guidelines and ideologies.

The Flathead Valley is a prime example. The various municipalities live and work next to one another while following their own vision.

Montana requires communities to craft formal growth policies that lay out goals and guidelines for shaping development. Sidewalks, streets, building designs, land use — essentially every aspect that factors into a community’s character and identity is addressed in a growth policy. The policies include city-specific data on growth trends, goals and recommendations that encompass communities’ priorities and then strategies for meeting those aspirations.

As it happens, these guiding documents frequently spark debate and contention among planners, residents, and in the case of the Flathead Valley, entire cities that don’t always see eye to eye.

Whitefish and Flathead County remain locked in a heated turf war over planning rights for a two-mile district known as the doughnut, and the litigious saga has cast a pall over the governing bodies’ public relationship.

In contrast, Columbia Falls operates a joint city-county planning board that meets regularly as a united force.

Somewhere in the middle is Kalispell. Memories of the city and county dissolving its joint planning board remain only 12 years in the past, and in some ways, the divisive incident still lingers overhead both groups.

For years, the two entities worked together under a united vision, but in 2001 the breakup occurred and both Kalispell and the county crafted their own separate growth policies.

At their recent meeting, city board members agreed it can be a challenge working together with the county, but it remains important to promote a healthy relationship.

The city and county policies agree that growth has both positive and negative effects on quality of life.

Kalispell is trying to embrace growth but at the same time model that development around a responsible ideal.

“We’ve offered a vision for this area to grow and prosper,” Jentz said. “The city wants to grow well.”

A recent example is the new Core Area Redevelopment Plan, which lays out a roadmap for reinvigorating and remodeling the industrial heart of Kalispell. The comprehensive document was amended into the growth policy earlier this year and is in between implementation stages.

With the Core Area Plan in place, the city is now refocusing on the overarching growth policy, which the planning board will continue to review over the next three months.

“It is huge that we’re on it now,” Jentz said.