Flathead County

Planning Board Tables North Fork Text Amendment

After pointing out potential problems with language, board sends proposed rewrite of North Fork zoning regulations back to advisory committee for work

By Micah Drew
The forests and mountains of the North Fork on Oct. 27, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

After two-and-a-half hours of discussion at its June 9 meeting, the Flathead County Planning Board voted to indefinitely table a proposed text amendment to the North Fork zoning regulations.

County planning staff characterized the proposed amendment, which residents of the North Fork have been working on since early this year, as “extensive in nature” and said “the request should be considered a complete rewrite of section 3.40.”

Kevin Halsey, a North Fork attorney, spoke on behalf of the North Fork Land Use Advisory Committee (NFLUAC) and the residents who showed up to the meeting, outlining the goals of the rewrite.

“The goal of our effort from the beginning was to make the regulations more in line with the neighborhood plan,” Halsey said, pointing out that the regulations were written in 1998, while the North Fork neighborhood plan is 10 years more recent.

“(Last year) was an interesting summer with us,” he added. “The Forest Service proposed an additional number of special-use permits that would have increased commercial activities in the North Fork, we had a lot of overflow traffic coming from the national park and had a lot of new activities proposed — a website came up talking about a series of festivals and events for over 2,000 people at a time.”

Halsey and planning staff also pointed to a series of conditional-use permit applications from the summer of 2020 that led to conflicting interpretations over North Fork regulations. The county board of adjustment denied three proposals — for a yoga retreat and camping sites.

In early 2021, NFLUAC began working on the text amendment and formed an ad hoc committee to conduct outreach to community members, meet with planning staff and write the draft amendment. At an April 15 meeting, NFLUAC unanimously voted to forward a positive recommendation to the planning board.

Proposed changes to the regulations broadly included alterations to definitions, additional conditional-use permit requirements and the addition of performance standards that adhere to the neighborhood plan.

Specific changes included adding “work camp” as a conditional use, combining convenience store and gift/souvenir shop, and changing references to “cabins” to “accommodations,” among others.

More than 100 written comments were received regarding the proposal, and dozens of community members gave public comment at the meeting, with the vast majority in favor of adopting the new regulations. A few dissenting voices characterized the changes as stripping property rights from future landowners and limiting the ability for new residents to move to the North Fork.

While members of the planning board extensively thanked NFLUAC and the North Fork community for their time, effort and dedication to the rewrite, they pointed out a long list of issues with the text of the proposed rewrite.

“These [regulations] are long, and as such, they can’t be capricious and they can’t be arbitrary,” board member Greg Stevens said. “And some of these things to me are sure edging on capricious — there’s no real reason for them — and they’re arbitrary; there’s no definitions. So I’m getting real nervous about what we are putting on the county with all this stuff.

Board member Elliot Adams agreed, adding that the regulations appeared to strip the property rights of landowners, as well as limit a vast swath of potential development.

One piece Adams pointed to was a line stating that convenience stores/souvenir shops cannot be located within 6,500 feet of “properties that are or could be used as private residence.”

“That’s over a mile away,” Adams said. “You just said there’s no convenience stores allowed anywhere in the North Fork.”

Board Chair Jeff Larsen pointed to other definitions, or lack of definitions, as a reason for his hesitancy to move forward with the changes. As an example, the amendment changes the definition of church to preclude megachurches, but doesn’t offer a definition of megachurch.

“When you [use] words like substantial or significant … it’s pretty difficult,” he said. “If you ask 10 people on the same piece of property what’s substantial or significant, you’ll likely get 10 different answers.”

The board voted 7-1 to indefinitely table the discussion, rather than forward a negative recommendation to the county commission, in order to give the North Fork community members a chance to rewrite their proposal and resubmit it at a later date.

“You’ve done some great things and worked hard on it,” Larsen said. “But I think it’s an interpretation nightmare.”