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Don't get caught off guard by new public participation rules

by Daily Inter Lake
| January 14, 2024 12:00 AM

The 2023 Legislature delivered a package of bills that reform Montana’s land-use codes with an eye toward fixing the state’s housing crisis. The legislation was a top priority for Gov. Greg Gianforte and his mandate to cut so-called red tape that stymies new development.

Among the sweeping reform measures was Senate Bill 382 and the Montana Land Use Planning Act. The measure takes aim at not-in-my-backyard type public uprisings that frequently challenge proposals for new subdivisions or multi-family developments. 

Recently in the Flathead Valley, well-organized movements have successfully influenced decisions on a number of high-profile housing proposals, from Columbia Falls and Bigfork to the outskirts of Whitefish. In each case, community members flooded council and commission chambers to air concerns and let their voice be heard.

That will no longer be an option under Senate Bill 382 for residents within Montana’s larger municipalities.

The new law requires that cities with 5,000 or more residents within a county exceeding 70,000 people must adopt a new land-use plan that puts public participation early in the planning process and streamlines all subsequent decision-making at the municipal level. Locally, that affects Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

These cities have two years to craft an updated land-use plan. During that time, public participation is welcome and encouraged. After that, it’s game over.

If a developer submits a project that fits the criteria set out in the land-use plan, city staff can simply sign off on the project based on their own assessment. The development proposal will never go in front of a planning commission or publicly elected city council for final approval.

“The whole idea behind this is to flip that, so that we do the planning and the public participation up front, we front-load it, then as we get to the permitting and the platting that becomes a very administrative process,” Montana League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Kelly Lynch told the Montana Free Press last year.

The new rule is currently being challenged in court as unconstitutional, along with three other zoning reform measures signed into law last year. The judge issued an injunction on two of those laws earlier this month, but allowed the Montana Land Use Planning Act to stand until a final ruling is made.

Unless those court challenges pan out, the planning act sets out the new reality of public participation in Flathead County’s municipalities.

Kalispell is just beginning the process of molding its updated land-use plan to meet the standards required in Senate Bill 382. Whitefish is currently updating its growth policy, as well, with Columbia Falls’ work on the horizon.

Now is the time to get involved — the only time, actually. Follow the process and speak up about zoning that doesn’t meet the character of your neighborhood or your city as a whole. 

Don’t let the land-use decisions made today catch you off guard in the years ahead.