Land-use plan is disemboweled

  • Flathead County

    Diane Sylvain
  • A Kalispell auditorium was packed last April for a building permit meetin

    . Nichols
  • Bob Watne addresses a recent meeting

    Karen Nichols
  • John Stokes

    Steve McElrath
  • Strawberry Mountain Village is a new development in West Glacier

    Tad Brooks

Kalispell, Mont. - Over the breakfast special at the Outlaw Inn, Steve Herbaly reflected on the joys of his job as director of planning for Flathead County.

Only the night before, he and his staff had been called socialists, communists and general purveyors of the demise of America at a public hearing over the county's proposed new master plan. After one member of his staff and one member of the local planning board received death threats, Herbaly's department underwent bomb-scare training, and now it is considering purchasing bullet-proof vests.

"We're not very popular right now," says the bespectacled, soft-spoken Herbaly. That's an understatement: Since the county government voted last month to approve the new master plan, which recommends planning, zoning and land-use strategies, the opposition has grown in size and fervor.

One local group has filed a lawsuit to invalidate the plan and initiated an effort to recall the county commissioners. A countywide movement is also under way, gathering signatures to force a referendum on the plan's adoption. In this otherwise peaceful-looking scenic valley south of Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana, some citizens are forming militias just in case "government gets out of hand."

It wasn't always this way. In fact, recent planning efforts in Flathead County had a stellar beginning. Two years ago, a survey indicated that more than 90 percent of county residents supported controlling or directing growth and development. As recently as a year ago, The Wall Street Journal heralded a newly formed citizen's planning coalition with the headline: "Montana Entrepreneurs, Environmentalists Join Hands."

But what was until recently touted as the "Flathead solution" has become what appears to be the Flathead dissolution, as warring factions of the community grow increasingly hostile and hyperbolic, and as some planning advocates genuinely fear for their safety.

Boom spawns a plan

Under Montana state law, all counties must adopt master land-use plans. If there is one county that needs it, it's Flathead. With such draws as Big Mountain ski area - the largest in the state - Tahoe-sized Flathead Lake, the Bob Marshall Wilderness and alluring small towns such as Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls, the county has become a magnet for newcomers, retirees and second-home buyers. In the last decade, Flathead County's population has grown 14 percent, compared to the state average of 1.4 percent.

Since 1990, construction requests have doubled in the Connecticut-sized county. Schools are crowded, and rubber-stamped subdivisions are replacing agricultural lands at an alarming rate. Property taxes have skyrocketed, with some lakeshore properties increasing by as much as 300 percent, says local planning board chairman Bill Dakin.

"We realized our prosperity was based on quality of life," says Dakin, a real estate agent, "and that that quality was threatened by a total vacuum of planning and zoning."

So in 1992, a diverse group of citizens formed a coalition to write a new county master plan - the policy document used by local officials to guide development, set regulations and make land-use decisions. Flathead County already had a plan, but it was out-of-date and inadequate to cope with the current growth onslaught.

In a remarkable show of support, the new citizens' group, called the Cooperative Planning Coalition (CPC), raised half a million dollars, mostly from local landowners. With assent from the local government, CPC hired a professional planning team, Aspen-based Design Workshop, to write the county plan.

Building local consensus on the new plan was a paramount concern. To ensure widespread participation, CPC and Design Workshop held more than 250 public meetings over a two-year period. Local real estate agents signed on, as did ranchers, environmentalists and even Plum Creek Timber Co., the county's largest employer and landowner.

The grass-roots planning document took shape, encompassing everything from encouraging protection of agricultural lands and open space to recommending that large subdivisions be subject to strict, consistent review and provide impact fees to help fund roads, sewers and schools.

A right-wing hijack

As the flesh-and-bone plan gained momentum, so did an emerging opposition. Residents not involved in the early stages have begun to fight the document; others got cold feet. Now they seek to throw out the entire document through a referendum, and they might succeed.

In an indication of county sentiment, anti-plan candidate Robert Watne beat pro-plan David Mason by a wide margin in November's county commission election.

"People came here to get away from zoning," says Chris Brown, chairwoman of Montanans for Property Rights, a newly formed group. "Who has the right to tell somebody who pays taxes what they can and can't do with their lands?"

In an effort to appease plan critics, the county agreed in early December to a non-binding, "advisory" referendum during the general election in the spring of 1996. Planner Herbaly says that will give his staff time to get out, educate the public, and conduct small, neighborhood-by-neighborhood meetings to tailor the master plan to the needs of different areas.

But Brown doesn't want to wait. By 1996, she argues, land-use regulations may already be in place. "A year and a half is too far away," says Brown, who will continue to gather signatures in the hope of forcing a special election. "It will be brought to a vote a lot earlier."

Meanwhile, the once-progressive plan has undergone deep surgery. What was a detailed 86-page draft is now a milquetoast 17-page final version, devoid of any implementation or enforcement mechanisms. Gone, for example, are Design Workshop's suggestions for watershed and ecosystem management.

"It's the incredible shrinking master plan," observes Roger Sullivan, a Kalispell attorney and planning advocate.

The recent spate of attacks on the plan has left supporters scratching their heads, wondering where all this opposition came from after two years of public meetings and relatively smooth sailing. Now that the document may be overturned, or at least ignored, some wonder if the money for outside consultants was well-spent.

"We could have done this for a fifth the price," says Tom Jentz, assistant planner for the county. But there's no question the services provided by the consultants, including extensive high-tech geological mapping, would have taxed the small local staff and taken much longer. And, concedes Jentz, the opposition would have been there just the same.

"Are there things we would have done differently? Yes," says Design Workshop consultant Deanna Snyder. "We should have done more publicity, more education, sought out opponents from the beginning. We knew there was a somewhat controversial political climate, but didn't realize to what extent."

Whether seeking the input of the most radical opponents would have prevented the current clash is a matter of debate. But observers say poor timing is part of the problem.

As the last election made clear, anti-government, anti-regulation sentiment appears stronger than anyone predicted. The Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period for the purchase of handguns, became law last November, and fed Montana's conservative backlash, as did the prospect of a Clinton health care plan and increasing restrictions on logging in national forests.

"Local land-use planning is taking the brunt of general dissatisfaction with national forest policies and national taxes," says Jentz.

But for many in the Flathead, the final straw may have been the county's new building permit regulations, which required a small fee and a permit for new structures or major additions to commercial or residential lots. Although entirely separate from the master plan, the move seemed to confirm suspicions that planning would mean more bureaucracy, fees and regulations.

In an unexpected fervor of opposition, Flathead organizers gathered nearly 10,000 signatures to bring the measure to ballot. In a special election last August, the permit regulations were overturned by a whopping 6-to-1 margin, according to County Commissioner Sharon Stratton.

"There has been a groundswell of anger since the building permits," says Stratton, a Democrat. "A lot of the fury over that was based on misinformation about fees and regulations."

Outside heavies weigh in

Stratton blames right-wing organizers for spreading false rumors and fanning the fires for a revolt against planning and government. "A few agitators have recently moved to the valley," she says. "Everything seemed to be going along smoothly and all of a sudden there are all these new fears planted in people."

One of the newcomers singled out by Stratton and others is Jess Quinn, a former car salesman and high-tech entrepeneur who recently moved to the area from Idaho. What is most disconcerting, say Quinn's critics, is his ability to bridge moderate and extreme ideologies. In addition to helping lead the popular building permit revolt, Quinn is also active in efforts to form a militia in Flathead County.

A frequent guest on local talk-radio, Quinn says the county master plan represents a small step in a grand governmental scheme: a deliberate shift toward socialism, erosion of personal constitutional liberty and the decay of the American way of life.

To much applause at the recent Kalispell hearing, Quinn made himself clear: "We want to be self-governing so we can become self-sovereign. Now we're going to defend what we have."

Another key Flathead agitator is John Stokes, perhaps best known for leading the effort to secede a new "Freedom County" from Snohomish County in Washington (HCN, 9/5/94). He moved to Bigfork, Mont., last year, and has been actively fighting the Flathead's proposed master plan. "I came here to escape government regulation," he says. "Planning is pure socialism."

It's hard to gauge the influence of Quinn and Stokes, but there is no question their messages have reached many people. Notes Tom Power, an economist at the University of Montana and a resident of conservative Ravalli County, south of Missoula: "There is a self-selection process that brings many people to the non-urban West. These are people with an ideological predisposition who are most vulnerable to independence, anti-government and property rights slogans."

Flathead not alone

As far as the emergence of a volatile and threatening radical right, the Flathead is hardly alone.

In Ravalli County, which is also writing a new planning and land-use document and where 20 ultra-right-wing constitutionalists recently published a notice of "emancipation" from the federal government, county officials had to pass an ordinance banning weapons in public meetings. Officials in Butte/Silverbow County did the same.

Not every opponent of planning is a militia-linked sympathizer; most are simply rural conservatives. But as more bridges form between right-wing extremists and more moderate conservative interests, there is increasing cause for alarm, says Flathead planner Herbaly. "What's breaking down is civilized, functional debate. Some of these people say they don't have to play by anyone's rules, that they can kill agents of the system. Once it gets to that level of fantasy, it's just too much."

An example of the increasing coziness between such groups can be found in the October newsletter of the National Federal Lands Conference, a Utah-based wise-use group that encourages counties to pass ordinances that codify the supremacy of local government over federal land agencies (HCN, 2/24/92). The front-page article argues "Why there is a need for the militia in America."

At the recent hearing in Kalispell before the local planning board, members of a newly formed citizen militia sat in attendance. One organizer distributed a flyer stating that community planning is "a socialist plan to enslave us ... and take over our property in the process." Announced car-wash owner Jack Paulson of Bigfork: "If I'm not allowed to vote on the destiny of my property, I'm going to be one unhappy José. I'll have no choice but to join a group and defend myself."

Such rhetoric, while mostly dismissed as hyperbole, has no doubt sent a small chill down the spine of local officials. Furthermore, it has effectively dampened momentum for community planning across Montana. At a public meeting in Helena last month, where officials presented a plan for emergency zoning measures to check lakeshore and hillside development, the crowd went wild.

"A lot of intimidating remarks were made to the planning board, staff and supporters," observed Alan McCormick, assistant planner for Lewis and Clark County. "Supporters felt they couldn't speak out. There was no free speech at that meeting. The planning board was quite intimidated and made a recommendation to table the measure indefinitely," he added.

Planning, like gun control, abortion and gay rights, has become a magnet for gadflies of the radical right. "Land-use planning is the next wave, the new central forum for recruitment and hate-stirring by fringe groups," says Ken Toole, director of the Helena-based Montana Human Rights Network. "What's at stake is nothing less than democratic process."

One of the problems with the far right, says Toole, is that it's hard to compromise with them, and furthermore, when you do, you're giving credence to their anarchist, religionist or constitutionalist leanings.

"The political center of the West seems to be moving right," he says. "It's not just planning that is at risk, but public education and progressive institutions in general."

Others say education and compromise with opponents are the only ways to prevent a planning impasse. The planning process in Flathead County, lengthy and inclusive as it has been, may have happened too fast, says Marty Zeller, one of the Design Workshop consultants. "Even though there were endless public meetings, there probably wasn't enough time to educate everybody, to take them from a 19th century Wild West attitude about planning to a 20th century system of land-use management," he says.

In the meantime, other Montana counties, struggling with master planning, have found in the Flathead a cautionary tale. "We're taking our time," says Tim Schwecke, planning director in Ravalli County. "We're going real slow."

In an effort to bring the far right into the process early, officials in Ravalli have appointed a diverse citizen board to review a draft of the local master plan. Seated on the committee are members of the groups We the People and Friends of the Constitution, organizations which endorse militias and tax evasion.

"It was our hope that we could have a meeting of the minds, find some common ground," says Schwecke.

Have they?

Well, not yet, Schwecke concedes. "We will get a plan of some type," he adds. "I'm not sure what it will look like, but we will get something."

Florence Williams free-lances from Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

A sidebar article, What to do when opposition to planning turns ugly, accompanies this story.

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