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New land development review procedures confusing

by Robert Horne, Jr.
| September 6, 2023 12:00 AM

Anyone attending the City of Whitefish’s growth policy kick-off on Aug. 24 got a lot more information than they bargained for, and many found it upsetting.

The kick-off began with a straight-forward and factual presentation by city staff. Attendees learned what a growth policy is, what it is used for, and how the process will be conducted over the coming months.

However, when the question-and-answer session began, it was starting to sink in to folks that several cities in Montana, including Kalispell and Whitefish, would be conducting long range planning and site-by-site land development review under a new set of rules, and these new rules will NOT allow them to participate in land use decision making as they have in the past.

These new rules are set forth in what is known as Senate Bill 382, enacted this past legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte. Ostensibly, the bill’s purpose was to provide “affordable housing,” and according to the governor’s Housing Task Force, the main cause for the lack of affordable housing in Montana’s cities is “stringent local zoning regulations.”

SB 382 has two basic parts. The first amends state law to make local growth policies (now called “land use plans”) more data-driven and robust in terms of public participation and the level of analysis required to substantiate the need and amount of land needed for each land use; commercial, industrial, residential, and of course multi-family and other types of “affordable” housing units.

The second part deals with how individual land use development permits are evaluated and how the decision to approve or deny is made. Under SB 382, all permit applications go directly to the “planning administrator,” who then has 15 days to determine if the application is consistent with the land use plan. If the administrator finds that the application is consistent with the land use plan and that all potential impacts of the proposed development are accounted for in the land use plan, the application is approved administratively with no public notice or involvement, and no public hearings by the planning board or city council.

Needless to say, folks attending the meeting were taken aback by that news. They peppered city staff with questions, many of which they could not or would not address.

For this reason, I will be planning a community forum to discuss SB 382 and the changes that it will bring to land use decision-making in Whitefish. I hope to do this as soon as possible. I would bring in the bill’s author and sponsor in the state Senate, the City of Whitefish, local legislators, and a land use attorney. We would trace the origins of SB 382 and how it possibly runs afoul of citizens’ right to procedural due process and to participate in governmental decision-making.

I am asking anyone who is interested in this forum to email me at rhorne@appcom.net, or phone me at (406) 250-6632. Contacting me will help me to gauge interest in the forum and assist me in planning the event.

Robert Horne, Jr. lives in Whitefish. He is a former planning director for the city.