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The fatal flaw in community input

| March 8, 2023 1:00 AM

By Keegan Siebenaler

[This letter to the editor was originally published in the Daily Inter Lake on March 5.]

In conversations about government, it’s almost cliche to say, “The government closest to the people works best.” This theory often argues for the legitimacy of city government and local control. It makes intuitive sense that the people most affected by a public policy should have the most influence over that policy. This requirement could be fulfilled simply by our representative government. After all, we elect our local, state, and national representatives. Theoretically, their electoral success rests on their policies serving the electorate.

However, postwar America has decided that the paradigm of local control doesn’t stop at the ballot box. In the Flathead Valley, decisions about land use aren’t made by elected representatives. Those representatives are often subject to direct community input.

At first glance, community input seems to be democracy’s ideal: informed citizens banding together to engage in their government through the humble public meeting. It’s a Norman Rockwell painting in the flesh. In the abstract, the denial of high-profile housing developments throughout the valley in recent months is heralded as a great example of good, responsive governance. But look more closely at these projects or go to these public meetings. You will quickly find that what we consider community input is fundamentally broken: it’s not democratic, it’s not equitable, and it definitely doesn’t solve the problems facing our community. More developments will come and are sure to be controversial. Before we accept knee-jerk negative sentiment as a good reason to block development, it’s worth examining the myriad problems with community input.

Walk into one of these meetings and find what studies across the country have quantified: “Individuals who are older, male, longtime residents… and homeowners are significantly more likely to participate in these meetings. These individuals are overwhelmingly likely to oppose new housing construction, and cite a wide variety of reasons. These participatory inequalities have important policy implications and may be contributing to rising housing costs.”

Obviously, those who are already homeowners will have less of a stake in the new supply of affordable rental units. Indeed, these groups have a vested interest in preserving the growth in property values that accompanies limited supply and rising demand.

Another way to describe the dynamics of community input is that “whoever shouts the loudest wins.” And the people who shout the loudest and longest against new apartment developments like River Highlands, for example, aren’t a good cross-section of the people living in Columbia Falls. Those able to sit for six hours in a planning board meeting on a Tuesday night aren’t working a second job in the evenings. They aren’t waiting tables or plowing the streets. In short, they aren’t the types of people that would live in that apartment building. While these demographic distortions are visible immediately, the geographic distortion of those in the room presents a similarly important, though less obvious, problem with taking community meetings as indicative of community sentiment.

New dense housing projects in the Flathead have diffuse benefits spread across the city and county. In the aggregate, building more affordable housing units allows low- and moderate-income Montanans to find housing and remain in the valley. Workforce housing is essential to keep our cities vibrant and livable in addition to addressing the widespread labor shortage in the past few years. But because these benefits are so generalized and thinly distributed across the entire area, no individual citizen has that much of a direct stake in the outcome of any particular project. With little individual reason to show up to a meeting or write a letter, the aggregate community benefit isn’t registered.

These large, aggregate, and diffuse benefits of new dense housing are opposed by smaller but geographically concentrated costs. People living directly next to a project are understandably dismayed by the potential for loud and dusty construction, changing viewsheds, and a general dislike for proximity to new growth. These homeowners, a small proportion of the community, are highly motivated by these negative impacts. Their motivation and resources invariably allow them to find myriad reasons why this particular project is a catastrophe. Maybe it’s parking, traffic, or sewage. But it’s always something, and that harm is heard ten times over. Often, the project is denied, and the entire valley continues to suffer from an endemically limited supply of affordable housing. In the background, unaffordable large-lot subdivisions sprawl further into our wilderness areas, permitted by-right and not subject to significant review.

What should we expect from our elected representatives? Their mandate must be to improve the lives of everyone in our community. But we tether our built environment to the tyranny of a self-interested but unrepresentative minority. We cannot continue to cede the economic vitality of our valley to small groups dedicated to preserving their lifestyles and land values at the expense of the rest of the community.

More housing development projects will be proposed. Inevitably, vociferous opposition from the neighbors closest to the development will follow. Placing that hostility in context is crucial. In fact, our ability to see through the outrage of the loud minority is the only way we will chart a more equitable path out of our housing crisis.

Keegan Siebenaler is the Affordable Home Ownership Project Coordinator for the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust and sits on the Shelter WF board of directors. He lives in Kalispell.

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