Montana West Economic Development recently published its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a report based on public input that describes the good and the bad about doing business in the Flathead. One of the weaknesses/challenges listed is sprawl/strip development/unregulated growth. I served as county commissioner during one of the most tumultuous periods of growth, and then collapse, in Flathead County, from 2005-2010, and that experience along with what I see today reminds me of a story my grandfather used to tell about hauling logs out of the North Fork in the late 1940s.
My grandfather’s truck was only a couple years old but used vacuum-assisted hydraulic brakes, since the much better air brakes were not commonly used on big trucks until a few years later. Like almost all trucks of the day, it was powered by a gas engine – and a pretty wimpy one at that compared to today’s powerful diesel engines. For reasons not at all clear to me it apparently was necessary to load every log possible on the truck, and on the long hills the truck would frequently run out of power. The old vacuum brakes weren’t very reliable at holding a loaded truck on a hill, so my grandfather would set the brake and then leap from the cab and desperately look for a big rock to throw behind the tire. After a few minutes of rest he would rev up the engine and engage the clutch for a short burst of movement and then repeat the rock thing again.
Sadly, that is often how growth management takes place around here. Some truly heinous development, or other obnoxious land use is proposed and community members spring into action, but without the power of comprehensive growth plans and zoning in place they can do little more than scramble about wildly looking for creative solutions.
We probably all have a similar picture in mind of what we wish our valley would look like; however, the mechanism for achieving that is incredibly complicated. We must protect property rights and yet somehow, as a community, develop fair and equitable land-use management plans that use incentives whenever possible and regulation only as a last resort.
My personal freedom to windmill my arms about whenever I feel like it ends where your nose begins, that seems clear enough. Setting the boundaries of how much and what type of development I can do on my land before it impinges on your “nose” is much, much less clear.
Unfortunately some people in the Flathead, because of misguided ideology or incomprehension, have continually sabotaged development planning by advancing the idea of property rights as the be all and end all. That makes it simple; I own the property and I can do whatever I want with it – the neighbors and everyone else be damned. However, such a viewpoint fails to make any effort to engage in the delicate balancing act of growth management, which, as pointed out in the report, is vital for a healthy business environment.
Land-use management is fraught with the potential for excessive regulation and unintended consequences. But if we don’t even engage in the sophisticated task of balancing property rights and land-use regulation we will always, like my grandfather, be scrambling about for last-minute, and probably ineffective, solutions. Meanwhile our community gradually becomes less and less desirable and we ultimately lose business to places that did work cooperatively and constructively together to manage their development growth.
Joe Brenneman is a rancher, farmer and former Flathead County commissioner.