Parting Shots

Zoned Out

You all know these developments are necessary, because change will never stop coming

By Dave Skinner

I spent (very well, thankyouverymuch) a number of years on the ski bum circuit, with the most (seven years) being in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

I picked Steamboat because it lived a rich, interesting history prior to skiing, and had a rich, interesting civic life, like Whitefish. Real matters to me. What mattered more was, Steamboat was still “affordable.” With a little luck, due diligence and a work ethic, a decent living there was far more attainable than Whitefish at a time when the Flathead economy was flatlined.

Well, like most good things in life, it didn’t last. Why? I got zoned out. Steamboat’s planning board was dominated by urban refugees who wished the clock had stopped the day they arrived. Their buzz phrase, among far too much word salad? “Smart growth.”

Only high dollar projects, with enough capital for lawyers to fight City Hall through endless delays and process, got built in town. Most insulting, often at the same time in the same breath, the “smart growth” types were in full scream about “affordable housing.”

Near town? Well, Routt County had a 35-acre subdivision review rule, and “open space” screamers blocked any change to that – meaning the close-in ranches all got busted up into 35-acre weed patches (with muddy two-rut “driveways”) unable to support even one “livestock.” Gosh, what a waste that was.

In combination, which none of the smarties could comprehend, Steamboat’s frozen rental housing was being sold away for top dollar, driving a leapfrog effect. Sure, peasants could still WORK in Steamboat, but more and more had to take the leap and LIVE elsewhere – the existing mining towns of Oak Creek (17 miles), Milner, even Hayden and Craig (40 miles). After one or two winters of curvy, blizzardy two-lane “Hell Has Frozen Over” commuting, they began giving up, leaving good jobs (or what WERE good jobs) for the “real world,” meaning Denver or beyond. The goodbye parties (including mine) were soul-crushing. Sure enough, Steamboat no longer has a soul – having lost it about 15 years before Whitefish did.

So, like you, the COVID reset and Great Resignation leave me wondering if the greater Flathead community is about to morph into something lesser. After a nice break that began about the time the mortgage bubble busted in 2008, I’m hearing the same duplicitous yammering from the same cadre of clock-stoppers (often newcomers) who not only totally munged up Steamboat and Whitefish, but literally every place in the Western states worth a dang.

My gosh, Mountain Gateway. Does anyone remember the ratty old trailer park at the Big Mountain turnoff, where the riff-raff lifties and mountain crews could just hitch to work? What better place for a nice project with a bit of useful retail and a new traffic light?  

Baker 80 by the landfill? Yep, I agree it should be accessed from the south, but stopping it? Come on, Happy Valley is a fine, unpretentious Montana neighborhood. I can only imagine the howling if Baker had the same lot size as Happy Valley – which it should. If someone proposed Happy Valley today? Oh my.

River Highlands? Columbia Falls utilities under the river? So what? Our natural gas comes over Marias right next to the Middle Fork for miles just fine. I say put in a nice light with advance flashers like we have on La Salle, lay the plumbing and wires nice and deep, widen River Road and it’s all good. As far as I’m concerned, 455 units for ordinary Montana workers on 49 acres (pretty, too) with city utilities is multiples better than one elite starter castle on those same acres.

Deep in your hearts, AND your brains, you know I’m right. All of us hurt a little when a farm field or forest patch fills with houses. All of us wish we could be prosperous and happy, where entries exactly match exits and nothing ever changes except maybe the name above the address.

You all know these developments are necessary, because change will never stop coming. Who do you really trust to plan the Flathead’s future? Those who plan for change, or those who plan against change?