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Wiping off the map

Lake County residents rally against being "Bitterrooted"

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As far as Donna Mollica is concerned, the last thing the Mission Valley needed right now was a tense and unexpected zoning debate. Communities throughout the area have yet to fully heal from years of division over the Flathead Water Compact, she says, and emotions are still fairly raw. Nonetheless, Lake County commissioners have decided early 2016 is the time to discuss rescinding a 10-year-old density map many residents feel stands between their valley's pastoral beauty and the rampant development seen elsewhere in western Montana.

"If they vote to rescind the density map, it's going to create yet another problem here," says Mollica, owner of the Hangin Art Gallery in Arlee. "And I cringe when I think about that because the ferocity of opposition on the water compact ripped our communities apart, turned neighbor against neighbor, and we have lived for far too many years with that kind of animosity in our public discourse."

Word of the county's deliberations over the density map—adopted in 2005 to steer new growth toward existing towns and maximize existing infrastructure—has spread since officials first raised the issue last fall. Locals continue to struggle to understand where the proposal for complete revocation of the map originated. Some have even leveled personal and professional allegations against Commissioner Gale Decker, who spent two years and thousands of dollars fighting to amend the map prior to his stint on the commission. Decker and his fellow commissioners had intended to vote on the matter during their last meeting on Jan. 20. Instead they fielded more than an hour of testimony from a standing-room-only crowd, the majority of it in opposition to the proposal.

"In terms of selling property here, it's very reassuring to buyers to know that open space next door to them is not going to be divided into one- or two- or five-acre tracts," Trudy Samuelson, a realtor from St. Ignatius, said at the meeting.

Residents of Lake County are fighting back against a proposal to rescind a density map they feel is critical to protecting the rural beauty and agricultural value of the Mission Valley. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder
  • Residents of Lake County are fighting back against a proposal to rescind a density map they feel is critical to protecting the rural beauty and agricultural value of the Mission Valley.

Despite the outpouring of support for the density map, Decker argued the document had "outlived its usefulness" and dismissed as a "false assumption" the concern that unchecked development could result in the Mission Valley becoming "Bitterrooted." Decker's defense of the proposal hinged largely on Lake County Attorney Wally Congdon's statements that the map and regulations were "legally indefensible" and on the lack of jurisdiction over lands belonging to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. However, both of these points have been directly challenged over the past few months. In a November 2015 letter to the commission, CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley stated that based on legal opinions from tribal attorneys and outside counsel in Missoula, "the density regulations are legal and would be defensible should they ever be challenged." On Feb. 11, the tribal council approved a memorandum of understanding strengthening the tribes' voluntary compliance.

"We're really excited to talk to the county about how we can keep these in place, keep the current regulations in place," says tribal attorney Jordan Thompson, "until we can all sit down and look at what's needed in the next growth policy."

The primary question most critics feel the commission has yet to answer is why revocation is the only option on the table. Dave DeGrandpre, a Charlo-based land use planner and former planning director for Lake County, was heavily involved in the initial drafting of the density map back in 2004. He agrees the document is likely in need of an update, considering the county already failed to conduct two required reviews. DeGrandpre is puzzled not only by the apparent urgency the commission feels on the issue but the desire to rescind the map before coming up with an alternative plan or beginning the broader task of revising the county growth policy.

"It's like when you change insurance—auto insurance or health insurance," he says. "You don't just drop the insurance that you have and then figure out how you're going to find other insurance later. You get other insurance lined up before you drop your first insurance."

Tensions remain high over the commission's proposal, with locals attempting to boost awareness through leaflets and face-to-face interaction. But some are trying to find a silver lining that didn't exist in the water compact debate. Mollica mentions the moment when Samuelson first approached the microphone at the Jan. 20 meeting, leaving Mollica to hold her breath. Samuelson had been one of the leading opponents of the compact, and Mollica wasn't sure what position she'd take. But when Samuelson proceeded to testify against rescinding the density map, Mollica says there was a collective "sigh of relief" in the room.

"There was just this relief," Mollica continues, "that the animosities that had been there for so many years were not coming into play on this issue."

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