After months of widespread public criticism and extended deliberation, the Bitterroot's controversial Legacy Ranch subdivision won unanimous approval earlier this month from Ravalli County's five Republican commissioners. The moment passed quickly, a simple motion followed by five equally simple "aye"s. None of the commissioners bothered to voice any final statements. In voting yes, all agreed that the litany of potentially significant adverse impacts had been sufficiently mitigated.
The drawbacks of developer Donald Morton's proposal were documented in hundreds of pages of public comment. The vast majority of locals expressed concerns about everything from water quality to increased traffic on the Eastside Highway to environmental fallout at the neighboring Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. But another theme emerged over the course of the subdivision debate, one illustrated quite pointedly in a comment from Stevensville resident Lois Poswiatowski. "Remember, the people of Ravalli County VOTE!" Poswiatowski wrote. "As Commissioners, your future jobs are on the line and the people have left NO doubt how they want you to vote."
The sentiment is the same in dozens more letters from Ravalli County constituents: Heed the public's will or face the consequences on Election Day.
History seems to be repeating itself in the Bitterroot. Just two years ago, commissioners approved two separate and sizable subdivisions near Hamilton. The firstthe 181-unit Grantsdale Additionpassed unanimously. Not long after, the 551-unit FlatIron Ranch enjoyed similar success. Both proposals sparked hours of intense debate, and locals cited some of the very same fears highlighted in hearings over Legacy Ranch. Nearly a year and a half later, in November 2012, Ravalli County overwhelmingly voted to re-elect two of the very commissioners that approved those subdivisions.
Maybe Legacy Ranch will be different. The public backlash against the proposal was considerably greater than that against Grantsdale and FlatIron. The subdivision's proximity to Lee Metcalf alone drove much of the debate, making the refuge a sort of bipartisan rallying point for Legacy Ranch opponents. Three of the commissioners are up for reelection in 2014. Given the stacks of letters and comments that have washed over them in recent weeks, they have to be wondering how long their constituents' memories will be.