It’s such a given it seems almost silly to even write it, but growth, or, more precisely, how to grow, has been a contentious issue in Flathead County for years now, at least since the county’s attempt to rewrite its growth policy in 1994 was met with death threats.
Like so many contentious issues, this one has been largely painted in black and white. On one side, you have the greedy out-of-state developers, willing to build whatever makes them the most cash, regardless of how it impacts the community, because they don’t have to live with the consequences. On the other side, you’ve got smart-growth advocates who, according to their opponents, are either NIMBYs who want to close the door to the Flathead behind them, or Communists intent on undermining everybody else’s property rights.
But on Feb. 12, developer James “Bucky” Wolford and smart-growth group North 93 Neighbors broke the mold, left the stereotypes behind, and got something done.
For seven years, Wolford has been working on a proposal for the Glacier Mall, a 700,000 square foot-plus retail space north of Kalispell. North 93 Neighbors have fought him every step of the way, mostly through lawsuits. Last summer, the Montana Supreme Court dismissed all but one portion of North 93 Neighbors’ suit.
“We could have strung that lawsuit out for another year,” Sharon DeMeester, a North 93 spokesperson, told the Independent, “but it wouldn’t have served either of our purposes.”
Instead, when North 93 received an invitation from Wolford to sit down with him and his design team in December, they took the opportunity and hammered out a plan that led to a “memorandum of understanding” between Wolford, Flathead County and North 93 Neighbors, which is the first legal step toward a settlement.
The revised plan is a far cry from the original mega-mall. Rather than one big structure, the proposal now features many smaller commercial structures, some large ones, single and multi-family homes and mixed-use developments. There are also 70 acres of park and five acres donated for a public building.
Ultimately, DeMeester says, “He didn’t get everything he wanted, and we didn’t get everything we wanted.” What both did get is progress.
She says that working with—rather than against—Wolford (who didn’t return calls for comment) certainly changed her view of him. And Wolford, she says, eventually admitted to her his own change of attitude: “You’re not the people I thought you were.”
People hardly ever are, and realizing that may be the smartest growth of all.