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Kalispell City Council revamps Planning Board

by CARL FOSTER
Daily Inter Lake | December 20, 2023 12:00 AM

Grumbling aside, Kalispell City Council on Monday established a Planning Commission to replace the municipality’s Planning Board, bringing the city in line with recently approved state legislation.

Creation of the commission was spurred by Senate Bill 382, also known as the Montana Land Use Planning Act, which directs cities to streamline planning and zoning processes while focusing public participation at the community-wide — rather than project-specific — stages. The measure aims to expedite development, but has already met with backlash. 

Count Kalispell city councilors as among the legislation’s critics. City Councilor Sam Nunnally was the first to raise a recent lawsuit challenging the Montana Land Use Planning Act by Bozeman-based group Montanans Against Irresponsible Densification. The group claims membership in municipalities across the state, including homeowners in Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish, according to the Montana Free Press.

“If we go forward, and then it gets deemed unconstitutional, will we have to go back and undo this?” Nunnally asked.

City staff asserted that establishing the commission was one step in a larger process as SB 382 requires compliance within a three-year window. 

Whether the commission should be populated with the members of the planning board, as is permitted by SB 382, set councilors Chad Graham and Ryan Hunter against one another. Hunter argued that citizens should elect new members if they wished. 

“I am not for that,” replied Graham, who sits on the Planning Board and serves as its chair. “A complete flip on the board? There is a learning curve there.” 

Mayor Mark Johnson and city staff argued in favor of keeping the current membership for consistency and to prevent loss of public interest in participating.

Johnson offered his own criticisms of the legislation, describing it as another “on the governor’s list of follies.” He questioned whether Gov. Greg Gianforte had ever sat on a city council or examined a municipal budget. 

Despite criticisms, Council voted unanimously to create the Planning Commission. 

JOHNSON SUGGESTED at the tail end of the meeting that Council prepare a resolution inviting the governor and state lawmakers to visit Kalispell and observe the municipality’s work in the coming year. The idea came from listening to interviews with Gov. Greg Gianforte about municipal spending in the wake of a series of high profile dustups between the state and local governments over property taxes, he said. 

The governor has offered the public “blatant lies,” Johnson said.

The problem with Gianforte looking at the overall growth in municipal budgets, he argued, was that it fails to take into account dollars generated by fees, spending required by state rules and agencies, and incoming grant dollars. Examining Kalispell’s budget from 2017 to 2023 and parsing out only what was budgeted to keep the municipality running, spending has increased by just 2.5 percent annually, Johnson said. 

“I'm sick of the lies being peddled out in the public by my governor and by other people writing letters to the editor who have no clue what it takes to run a city,” Johnson said.

Convincing state leaders to review Kalispell’s books and aid in crafting the forthcoming municipal budget might prove educational, he said.

“I’m sick of these pot-shots from Helena,” Johnson said. “Let them come sit next to us in our chairs so they can see for themselves what we’re going to do in 2024.”

Until Gianforte educated himself, Johnson said, the governor would be better served by remaining quiet.

“... Once he finally understands [our budget], if he has some criticism or some opportunity to give us input, I will take it, but until that point the governor better shut the hell up,” Johnson said.

COUNCIL also voted in favor of issuing roughly $1.6 million in bonds to make improvements to the Grandview Lift Station and Four Mile Drive Force Main.

City Manager Doug Russell argued for the move, saying that “one of the nice things with this offering is that $750,000 of this will be forgiven.” That referred to the loan type offered by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The bonds will be repaid using enterprise funds. 

The measure passed unanimously.

Council also performed a second reading for a request for a planned unit development overlay from Stillwater Development Partners LLC for the second phase of its Stillwater Bend subdivision. The phase is expected to see construction of 432 multifamily dwelling units on roughly 30 acres north of Rose Crossing and to the west of U.S. 93.

Council again split 6-2 on the request with Hunter and Councilor Jessica Dahlman dissenting. Dahlman said the project’s call for a 100-foot buffer from the Stillwater River rather than the 250-foot riparian buffer recommended by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks prompted her no vote.

“I really like the plan, the look of it,” Dahlman said. “Just the deviation is a lot of my objection.”

Reporter Carl Foster can be reached at 758-4407 or cfoster@dailyinterlake.com.