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County commissioners opt to make density map advisory, not regulatory

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POLSON — Lake County is undergoing the process of repealing its density map and then approving it for use as an advisory document, county commissioners said last week.

County Planning Director Jacob Feistner said the goal is to repeal the 2005 document — which is a standalone document used for zoning — and make it part of a new growth policy as an advisory tool. The current growth policy dates to 2003.

Commissioner Gale Decker said the density map, which was approved in 2005, has been “highly controversial” since it was first adopted.

Commissioner Bill Barron said that the vast majority of the public comments about the density map in 2005 were against it.

Commissioners considered repealing the density map and regulations in 2015, which Barron said he thought “was a little premature” at the time. “We needed to update the growth policy and phase it all in together,” he said last week.

Making the density map advisory “allows us to use common sense” in making land-use decisions, Decker said. “Sometimes you get into a situation that doesn’t allow you to do something that’s a very sensible solution” because the zoning on the density map must match what the property owner wants to do.

“Right now our hands are tied a lot of times,” Feistner said. Making the density map advisory would allow the planning office and property owner more flexibility, he said, noting the map would be used along with floodplain regulations and the county’s road policy and other factors.

Wally Congdon, the county’s deputy civil attorney, said that making the density map advisory would allow the planning office and property owner to be more creative.

In order to subdivide one’s land currently, if the proposal deviates from the density map, the landowner must obtain a variance from the county planning office or the Board of Adjustment, Congdon said. Those decisions can then be appealed to district court. The commissioners want to enable future appeals to them or the district court, Barron said.

“My goal is to have a document that treats everybody fairly, and that can’t be done as a regulatory document,” he said. “It needs to be advisory.”

“There’s never been a large development developed in the last 12 years,” Commissioner Dave Stipe said, adding that the density map has only been used to stop development.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes spokesman Rob McDonald said that land wholly-owned by the tribe is “covered” by the density map and regulations, but noted that the tribe is actually stricter with its zoning than that which exists on the density map. 

Land owned by individual tribal members or allotments in trust status are not covered by the density map and regulations, he said via email, but added this is less than 3 percent of the land in the county. 

Congdon and Decker said that the land controlled by the tribes and tribal members makes up “about 50 percent” of the land in Lake County. 

According to the county’s growth policy draft, “the county asserts no jurisdiction over tribal land, federal land or within cities and towns. County jurisdiction over state land varies depending on the issue and applicable laws.”

Feistner said this jurisdictional definition also applies currently, but notes that 16 zoning districts in the county have their own regulations. 

“Anything under tribal jurisdiction is not under the county’s jurisdiction,” he said. He said that if CSKT is complying with the density map and regulations, they are doing so voluntarily.

Former County Commissioner Paddy Trusler of Pablo, who served from 2000-2012, opposed repealing the density map in 2015 and making it advisory because the growth policy was not going to be updated at that time.

Trusler said he is unsure if he opposes the repeal now because he’s not familiar with the proposed growth policy.

“Every landowner has the right to develop their property as they see fit as long as it doesn’t impact the public as a whole,” he said, adding that “residential subdivisions never pay for themselves.”

He said that prior to adoption of the density map, the county was frequently being challenged in court because the county’s land-use decisions were made on the basis of need, which was arbitrary.

Feistner said the Lake County Planning Board considered chapters 1-7 of the proposed growth policy at its meeting on Jan. 10. He had notified the board members the day prior that the commissioners planned to repeal the density map — which is part of chapter 8 — and make it advisory as part of the new growth policy. Feistner said he also made an announcement about that at the Jan. 10 meeting, and said that some public comment about the density map was taken at that meeting. 

“Anyone who has heard the comments would say they’re the two most vocal in support of it being retained as regulatory,” Feistner said, referring to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Flathead Lakers. 

The Flathead Lakers submitted a letter to the Planning Board on Jan. 10 that said, “The regulations would not be effective if modified to make them simply advisory.” It was signed by Executive Director Robin Steinkraus, Vice President Thomas Cox and Past President Greg McCormick. 

Planning Board Chairman Steve Rosso, who is also president of the Flathead Lakers, said he was speaking only from the Planning Board’s perspective. “There seems to be overwhelming support for keeping it regulatory with some amendments,” he said of the density map. 

Rosso based that on several hearings that were held in recent years and on a survey by Land Solutions LLC of Charlo, which is tasked with developing the new growth policy. 

Feb. 14 meeting 

A draft of the proposed resolution regarding the density map and regulations will be considered by the Lake County Planning Board at 7 p.m. Feb. 14 in the large conference room on the third floor of the courthouse. The draft will be available for public inspection on Feb. 8 at the county planning office, which is also on the third floor of the courthouse, Feistner said.

The Planning Board has not yet made a recommendation about the density map and regulations, according to board member Frank Mutch. 

The county received a grant of some $30,000 to rewrite the growth policy, which began a year ago, Barron said.

County commissioners hope to adopt the new growth policy by late spring or early summer, Decker said.

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