Avoiding Government Extortion

We must ensure our elected officials govern consistent with duly enacted regulations rather than whimsy

By Tammi Fisher

A recent Kalispell City Council decision exemplified the imperative that we consistently elect folks who believe in the rule of law to local councils and commissions. The Kalispell City Council recently approved a 324-unit housing project off of Two Mile Drive. It appears the process undertaken for approval was entirely consistent with the City Zoning Regulations. However, there was some commentary about placing a requirement in the conditional-use permit that the developer build sidewalks outside of his property on adjacent property because when the adjacent property was developed, no sidewalk requirement was implemented by the then City Council.

To many folks this might not seem like a big deal, but to those who went through the last building boom, such a proposal re-ignites the fear of returning to the days of government extortion of improvements that have nothing to do with the property being reviewed and are nowhere to be found in the zoning regulations. In particular, some of us find it highly offensive that a new developer would be required to pay for the sins of the past legislative body that failed to implement a design standard (here sidewalks). Should this “pay for the sins of the past” proposal gain traction in the future, development will cease. Banks won’t lend to developers. We will have a housing shortage. Rent will increase, and so will the cost of buying a home. And the City of Kalispell will not have the infill and associated tax base it needs to cover the increasing costs of providing municipal services. This will then leave the remaining city taxpayers to pay for the increasing street lights, tree maintenance, road maintenance, and public safety costs.

When the real estate market booms, so do new housing and commercial development proposals. Developers rely on local zoning regulations in determining what they can build on their property. As developing property is extraordinarily expensive, and relies upon perfect timing for a financial return, the importance of the zoning regulations cannot be overstated. Many of the Flathead Valley developments are financed by local banks; developer and lender confidence in costs of construction rely heavily on the promise that the local legislating bodies will not deviate from their own laws, i.e. the zoning regulations.

All of us rely on fair, impartial government that applies the rules consistently, without ad hoc add-ons. Deviating from the rules for any purpose no matter how laudable or utilitarian, is a slippery slope that places our property rights in jeopardy and leads to increasing mistrust of government. In order to avoid these consequences we cannot be complacent in our elections, and we must ensure our elected officials govern consistent with duly enacted regulations rather than whimsy.

Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.

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