Update: Planners are defending their process and presenting evidence they’ve been misrepresented by landowners suing them over a neighborhood plan for Somers and Lakeside. For more details, check out the Flathead Beacon and click here.
In the last two weeks, rumblings over planning issues in Flathead County have escalated to explosive debate, with heated public meetings, a lawsuit, calls for the planning director’s resignation and allegations of illegal planning activities and fiscal abuse.
As a result, much has been left in limbo. Fed up citizens continue to push for drastic changes within the county’s planning and zoning department, while the office staff and community supporters of neighborhood planning have moved to defend their work.
The recent controversy began simmering when a handful of citizens raised questions over an online Yahoo! group being used by the volunteer committee rewriting the Lakeside neighborhood plan. Because the forum wasn’t accessible to the public, detractors called it secretive and illegal, arguing that it violated open meeting laws.
Then, a public meeting in Somers meant to provide information on neighborhood planning dissolved into a shouting match when opponents interrupted.
From there, the debate escalated when 24 people sued the county over neighborhood planning efforts in Lakeside and Somers, alleging violations of state and local meeting and planning laws. A public meeting held by American Dream Montana, a private property rights group, to air the grievances further intensified the scrutiny.
By the time citizens flooded the county commissioners’ meeting room last Wednesday, lining the walls and overflowing outside, a petition was circulating demanding County Planning and Zoning Director Jeff Harris’s suspension and an independent investigation into his department’s work, and even defenders of the recent planning efforts were asking for changes in the planning process.
“I can say with all candor that Jeff Harris and the planning office as a whole are not meeting (state and local) regulations,” Tammi Fisher, a Kalispell attorney representing the plaintiffs in the suit against the county, said, adding that Harris has become the “judge, juror and executioner of land-use planning” and that he “dictates what every person in this county can do with their property.”
Fisher described the planning process as secretive and flawed, because of Harris’ own biases and agenda. In the current case and in previous suits she’s filed over planning issues, including a gravel-pit application by Bruce Tutvedt and a batch-plant application by Gary Krueger, Fisher said the department’s ineptitude has cost her clients extraordinary amounts of time and money.
“The loss of public trust is palpable,” Fisher told the commission. “They now turn to you; they expect this body to right a wrong.”
Former Flathead County Commissioner Dale Williams suggested the commissioners ask Planning Director Jeff Harris to resign, and fire him if he doesn’t.
In addition to taking the department to task for alleged violations of open meeting laws, Williams described spending within the department as “appalling” and said an audit was needed. He claimed expense reports from the office were incomplete and questioned expenditures, including the use of county credit cards for food items, mailings and hotel rooms.
For example, when planners attended a professional conference in Las Vegas, Williams said they upgraded out of a basic room to one with a “Jacuzzi at the foot of a bed” and a walk-in shower. “Why should we lap them in luxury?” he asked.
Williams’ also challenged expenses for food and, in one person’s case, lodging during a Montana Association of Planners convention at Flathead Lake Lodge last year.
For Harris and many of the volunteers involved in the neighborhood planning efforts, last week’s commission meeting was their first full view into the accusations being leveled against them or their work.
In an interview later, Harris said that he welcomed an independent audit and revision of the neighborhood planning process if that’s what the planning board and commission felt were necessary. His office was working on a reply to the complaints, which it plans to present to the commission in the coming weeks.
Already some misrepresentations, especially in the case of expenses, had begun to appear, Harris said.
In the case of expenses at Flathead Lake Lodge, county receipts prove that the state planner’s association repaid the cost of food for an evening campfire social. Assistant Planning Director BJ Grieve stayed on site, because he was the conference chair, and needed to be available. He shared a room with a Missoula planner to cut costs.
At least one of the mailings questioned was in response to a request for documents in a subdivision lawsuit. The $400-plus spent was reimbursed by the plaintiff’s attorney’s office.
Williams claims that planners at the Las Vegas conference enjoyed an upgraded room are totally false, Harris said. The hotel confirmed the planners paid the government rate for a basic room.
“We’re going to investigate every complaint and decide whether it’s a misrepresentation in our opinion or whether something wasn’t right and we need to deal with it,” Harris said.
As for the neighborhood planning process, Harris said the county planning board was going to set a time to tackle the issue at its next scheduled meeting. “There is obviously room for clarification,” he said.
For their part, Lakeside and Somers residents showed up in force to defend their efforts, asking the commission to let planning continue in their communities and holding orange signs that read “Lakeside (or Somers) Support Neighborhood Planning” up throughout the meeting.
“It seems now that our inexperience may have led us wrongly in a few instances, but it is of the utmost importance to note that we corrected every misstep as soon as it was brought to our attention,” Barb Miller, a member of the Lakeside Neighborhood Plan Committee, said.
In the beginning, Miller said 12 meetings were held in people’s homes, but when the committee was told the public might not feel comfortable attending there, they moved their sessions to public places like the Lakeside Chapel meeting room, the public library and the Remax office.
When the committee learned that it had missed some absentee property owners in its first community survey mailing, Miller said 815 additional surveys were mailed out. The results were nearly the same as the first, disproving claims that the committee had intentionally left out only opponents. With a return rate of 31.7 percent from 650 households representing almost 1,500 people, Miller said 91 percent said neighborhood planning was needed and 84 percent supported zoning as an implementation strategy.
In the case of the online Yahoo! group, Miller said it was created for ease of scheduling meetings and sharing information – “absolutely not made to hide anything.”
Documents were discussed in public meetings, she said, and placed on the committee’s Web site.
“Were I to do it over again, I would still set up and use the Yahoo! group, but explore other means of access and openness,” Miller said.
With nearly two years of their work on the draft of the neighborhood plan in jeopardy of being scrapped, Miller and other Lakeside committee members vehemently defended their work as representative of their community.
“I most certainly stand up for the draft Lakeside plan that has resulted from the hard work of a few, but the support and input of many, many people with interests in Lakeside,” Miller said.
Committee member Bruce Young described many of the allegations leveled against the group as “misleading and orchestrated comments and threats,” and said that opponents had been more interested in obstructing the process than actually participating.
“Anyone can file a lawsuit, proving those charges is the real test,” Young said. “There is still time for all those who want to participate and comment to do so, instead of obstructing what is a great community effort.”
The Lakeside Community Council is taking public comment on the draft neighborhood plan, including a public meeting at 7 p.m. July 14 at the Lakeside Community Chapel, through July 21. During the community council’s regularly scheduled meeting on July 28, the council will determine if any other revisions need to be made and will consider forwarding the plan to the county, where it would undergo continued public review.
After having their earliest efforts squashed by controversy, Somers residents also argued for the freedom to continue exploring whether their community would even support a neighborhood plan.
“To date there have only been informational meetings and it is way too soon to say if the majority approves or does not approve of planning,” Somers resident Michelle Ahem said. “Let us continue to at least find that answer.”