The Flathead County Planning Board at their Sept. 13 meeting voted to forward a negative recommendation for a proposed zoning district north of Lakeside to the county commissioners.
Proposed by the Upper West Shore Alliance (UWSA), the request would zone roughly 1,000 acres of land north of Lakeside — currently unzoned parcels — into one of seven different residential zones. The application cited the Lakeside Neighborhood Plan, which is incorporated into the Flathead County Growth Policy and states that “unzoned land is unprotected from development incompatible with the community vision and small town, rural character,” of the Lakeside area.
Following nearly three hours of public comment and board discussion, the eight-member advisory board voted 7-1 against the zoning application, with Sandra Nogal the lone dissenting vote.
“It’s not ready for prime time,” said board member Greg Stevens. “I’ve heard too much testimony in opposition to where this is going to screw people up. When we start using these broad-brush zoning classifications in areas that already have established uses, there’s always problems, and problems hurt people.”
Janie Lewer, a UWSA board member, helped spearhead the zoning proposal over the last year, in part as a response to the construction of the Flathead Alpine Coaster along U.S. Highway 93. Lewer previously told the Beacon that the development spurred a realization among Lakeside community members that without zoning, or a local advisory board, there were few avenues for residents to offer input on the community’s growth. Beginning in the spring of 2022, the UWSA began working on a zoning proposal, which included holding two workshops with the planning board and Flathead County planning staff, as well as several community meetings, to gather feedback and begin writing the zoning recommendations.
“For more than a year, the Upper West Shore Alliance has been supporting Lakeside residents’ desire to pursue zoning. These efforts have been significant and constant,” Lewer told the board on Wednesday night. “This plan is a balance of the vision in the Lakeside Neighborhood Plan, and how properties have been developed and are being used now.”
More than two dozen community members gave public comment during the hearing, a majority in favor of the proposed zoning. Many individuals cited desires to limit future developments that could impact property values and provide some uniformity to the expected growth in the area.
State Rep. Tanner Smith, R-Lakeside, spoke in favor of the zoning initiative as a way to preserve the community’s values.
“I think this doesn’t go far enough,” he told the board. “Montana is growing and changing, and we need some curbs and sideboards put up.”
Lewer provided documentation showing the proposal is supported by more than 60% of the 449 parcel owners involved, though some community members who spoke in opposition of the zoning called that number into question.
Sue Sisley, a physician whose property along Deer Creek Road includes a guest lodge as well as an American Legion Post, cited concerns that some of her current business operations would be impacted by a residential zoning designation and said she’d only been made aware of the proposal in recent weeks.
“I’ve never had any complaints about the commercial activities we handle discreetly and respectfully,” Sisley said. “I don’t believe in government micromanagement over our lives.”
In written comments, Sisley requested the proposal be denied so the community can have a “truly deliberative process” where all property owners can have a say in how the zoning maps are drawn, including where exceptions or carve-outs to the residential zoning should be made. She recommended including sections of commercial zoning to allow for the broader ability to operate various businesses, as opposed to granting exceptions one a case-by-case basis.
“A whole reason I established my roots here is because I value unzoned property,” Sisley told the Beacon. “These people defending us at the county level are fiercely in favor of private property rights, so I feel good about the way the board voted. If this discussion continues going forward, we’d like to participate and adjust the map to work for us.”
Several board members agreed with opponents that restricting all zoning to residential was problematic. Such a move could be construed as “weaponizing zoning against businesses,” according to board member Elliot Adams, while Greg Stevens expressed concerns over the limitations of using a grandfather clause to let existing businesses operate in a residential zoning designation.
Stevens recommended the proposal be reworked with better buy-in from all property owners directly affected by the zone changes, especially given the increased public awareness prompted by the planning board meeting.
Board chair Jeff Larsen ended the discussion on the zoning proposal by calling it a good starting point.
“I think this thing is pretty close to something,” Larson said. “There are some things I’m not going to vote for right now, but I think you guys are close.”
Lewer, the UWSA board member, told the Beacon after the meeting that she was taken aback at the lack of support from the planning board, given the amount of dialogue over the last year that led to the development of the zoning proposal.
“I think we were diligent in hearing what they wanted during the workshops and meetings, so it caught us off guard a bit,” Lewer said, adding that the concerns expressed by the board and some community members seemed to come from all angles. “We cannot solve every problem that’s out there. No one can do that.”
The UWSA can choose to proceed with taking the zoning proposal to the county commission at its Oct. 26 meeting, or revise the plan and resubmit it to the planning board for another round of public comment.
“It’s too early to say which way we’re going to go, but we are going to listen to the experts, like we’ve done all along,” Lewer said. “There’s a bit of brainstorming ahead of us.”
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