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County code enforcement needs reevaluation

| February 14, 2021 12:00 AM

In recent years, West Glacier’s pristine Lake Five is just one example of the downside of the complaint-driven system Flathead County uses to guide code enforcement efforts on properties throughout the valley.

In 2019, neighbors of the new Whistlestop Retreat filed a complaint against the property’s owner, claiming she had erected various structures prior to obtaining a major land-use permit. But after she applied for, and was granted that permit, an organization turned around and sued the county for that decision, asserting her plans for the permit will harm the quality of Lake Five.

It is likely the permit misstep at Whistlestop would not have fallen onto Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office’s radar if neighbors had not submitted the complaint.

This is also true for a separate grievance that was lodged against the Lake Five Resort last year, alleging the prominent long-standing facility has, over the years, expanded its property offerings and marina system without proper permits — information that state and county officials recently found to be valid.

There are two major problems to consider with these complaints.

The first is that both property owners, according to state and county reports, have at some point violated planning and zoning and sanitation laws, though both parties have maintained they did this unknowingly.

The second is that Flathead County seems to function on a system where these problems, which can ultimately have a negative impact on surrounding resources, are likely to go unnoticed unless a formal complaint is filed. In the case of the Lake Five Resort, which is believed to have possibly violated the Sanitation Act as early as 1973, a complaint can sometimes be filed decades after any land-use issues have unfolded.

That means the burden of ensuring county residents comply with regulations largely falls to the property owner themselves, or to those willing to put their name on a complaint. This process evokes bitterness among neighbors and holds select property owners to higher, and often costlier, standards.

Planning Director Mark Mussman said the county is currently swamped with at least 70 violation complaints — a sizable stack for the county’s lone code enforcement officer. He also said if the county were to start accepting off-record complaints as well, officials would need to consider bringing on another enforcement officer.

An anonymous system would protect complainants from any blowback and would help maintain the quality of of our lakes and rural neighborhoods.

With all the growth that has occurred in the valley in recent years, we encourage county officials to ensure the Planning and Zoning Office, and the systems that guide it, grow and adjust along with it. As more developments emerge and are built to current standards, it will be equally important to make sure the county’s aging structures and properties are not lost in the mix.