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Commissioners plan to approve growth policy, taking comments

Lake County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a resolution of intent to adopt the 2018 Lake County Growth Policy on Monday, July 9.

The vote was not the final action on the matter and members of the public still have time to make comments and recommendations for changes within the policy. The policy can be read at www.planlakecounty.com, under documents. 

The Lake County Planning Board, an advisory board to the commissioners, recommended in April that the commissioners adopt the new growth policy to replace the 2003 version.

The growth policy is 108-page non-regulatory document containing information about social, physical, environmental, and economic issues in the county as well as local resources, land conservation, subdivision policy, future uses and more. The Density Map Regulations, an advisory document for growth and development, is included in the policy. 

“The purpose of a growth policy is to take a snapshot of present conditions in the county, and then attempt to build a framework for future planning,” according to the 2018 Growth Policy draft. 

As work on the policy wraps up, some people and groups including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would like the policy to include more. 

“Everyone who lives here is affected by land planning and development – in particular tribal people whose deep relationship with the land stretches back for millennia. Any changes made to the land and the way it is used deeply affects all of us who live here,” said CSKT Chairman Ronald Trahan.

Lake County Commissioners use the growth policy as a guiding document. The Planning Board also considers the document when making decisions about land use, planning, development and improvements. 

Montana state law outlines the specific elements that growth policies are required to contain including local regulations for zoning and subdivisions, and it has policy statements and an implementation plan to aid local government leaders in making decisions.  

“Lake County has chosen to use the growth policy as a resource management plan that the county can draw from to influence federal decisions that impact our citizens,” according to the draft policy. “It was also written to be a tool for the county, economic development agencies, farmers, and resource managers to use to gain competitive advantages when seeking grant funding.” 

Land Solutions, LLC was contracted to rewrite the policy. Commissioner Gale Decker said the Lake County Planning Board reviewed the document and made suggestions, and with diverse opinions on the board, discussion took time. He said having those different opinions was a positive asset to the community.

Decker said the 2003 Growth Policy was outdated with goals and objectives that no longer work for the county. For example, it contained a projected increase in population of 8,000 people. “Population projections were way off,” he said. “We only have about a 1,000 more people, not 8,000.”

He attributes the lack of growth to a downturn in the economy occurring after the year 2000. “The bubble burst in 2007 and 2008, and we haven’t recovered,” he said.

The 2003 policy encouraged growth in towns where water and sewer hookups were available. “Towns like Polson and Ronan reached capacity for new hookups so those towns couldn’t take on more, so it was fruitless to encourage town growth. And the county and the towns didn’t have the funding to upgrade the systems.”

Decker said the policy also failed to consider that the people moving to the area wanted a “little piece of property” outside of town with a rural lifestyle. 

The policy starts out with geographic information about the location of 1,490 square miles of land within the county and calls it a home with marvelous lakes, valleys, and mountain ranges. It gives a brief history of the county and moves on to keys issues.  

“The authors of this document, and the Lake County Commissioners who adopt it, want people from all over the county to know that this document isn’t just based on the vision of a small handful of community leaders from around Polson, or even Ronan and St. Ignatius. This document must reflect Lake County, and Lake County is a long list – people, cultures, communities, perspectives, businesses, farms, churches, bars, lakes, mountains, and forests. The lists could go on and on.”

It continues: “This growth policy is intended to be a baseline document – to include current conditions and a description of where we are – only then can we define where we’re going and how we would like to get there.”

The lack of housing for sale and for rent in price ranges that are needed is one issue the document addresses. “Wages are not keeping up with the real estate housing and rental markets. As a general trend, young people are leaving Lake County and not returning, and many who start their careers here are not staying, which is partly attributed to housing costs. Housing types must also meet the needs of an aging population.”

Local governance was also noted as a key issue. “Lake County is more complex than most counties because approximately two-thirds of the county overlaps with the Flathead Indian Reservation,” the policy states. “The limited tax base that comes with a high volume of tax-exempt federal and tribal lands that still require some forms of public service is a major issue.”

The policy continues: “The Lake County Commissioners see the current situation with fee land going into tax except status at a critical stage that if not addressed by the county, the federal government, the state, and/or the tribes may result in a failed county government.”    

Commissioner Decker said figuring out the property tax issue has been a struggle. He said a statement in the growth policy might sound like the commissioners are blaming the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for the loss of tax dollars due to land being held for the tribes in trust by the federal government, which makes it exempt from property tax.

“We don’t feel like we are blaming the tribe,” he said. “We think the federal government and the state need to look at the trust policy for counties with significant land on reservations.”

Decker said counties with significant acreage on forest service land receive funds in lieu of the tax dollars they would have received in recognition of hardship. “Shouldn’t reservations with tax exempt lands be included in that?” 

He said the issue comes down to the development of a law to allow reservations to qualify for federal funding when land has tax-exempt status. “We don’t understand why it doesn’t happen,” he said. “We need the community to put pressure on congress and let them know this is a serious problem. We need a mixed group of citizens to come together so we can solve this.” 

Decker said he wanted to make it clear that trust land wasn’t the problem. “CSKT has every right to put land in trust. We don’t contest that at all. We think the federal government and the state have a responsibility to the county.”

The loss of tax dollars has a ripple effect on programs relying on that funding, he said, including schools, fire departments and senior centers. “No one can operate on less taxes, and we can’t raise taxes because they are already too high. We have voters that won’t pass a levy for school districts because they can’t afford the increase, and we won’t support a bond to build a new jail because of the enormous burden it would place on taxpayers.”

Many of the taxpayers in the county are on a fixed income and can’t afford increased payments, he added. “We had 936 delinquent tax notices in the fall of 2017 which was right at $700,000. I think this is an indicator of the stress taxpayers are under.” 

In a letter to the commissioners, CSKT Chairman Trahan addressed the perspective that tribal lands in trust status are causing county property taxpayers to take on additional tax burdens. 

“As we stated in our December letter regarding the Draft Growth Policy, much of the non-assessed tribal land in Lake County is unsuitable for development with slopes steeper than 25 percent or with title restrictions that have removed development rights.”

He notes that the restricted areas without development or people do not require county services. “Tribal Game Wardens and Division of Fire personnel patrol and protect these lands.”

Trahan also asked commissioners to reconsider omitting the tribe’s “significant contributions” to the county in the draft policy including law enforcement, power utility, wildlife management, road programs, recreation facilities like parks, campsites and trails, highway planning, land management, invasive species coordination, transportation improvement plans, weed control, air quality management and other programs.

“While these services are not provided in the form of tax payments to Lake County, they are services that offset the county’s service burden,” Trahan said. 

The Lake County Planning Department is receiving comments concerning the policy mailed to 106 4th Ave. E, Polson MT 59860 or faxed to 406-883-7205 or email to planning@lakemt.gov. The commissioners will hold a public hearing concerning the growth policy at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 21, in room 211 of the Lake County Courthouse.

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