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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Page One News at a Glance

New subdivision regulations adopted

Planning Department proposes two-year agenda

Transition to five-member County Commission debated

Access limited at Poker Joe Fishing Access Site

Effort to recall Scott fails

Thomas retires as Chairman of Montana Board of Housing

New subdivision regulations adopted

More changes planned

By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Commissioners have adopted some changes to the county's subdivision regulations that were designed to meet the requirements of Senate Bills 116 and 290 in which the legislature revised the Montana Subdivision and Platting Act. The new state laws, passed in 2005, gave counties until October 1, 2006 to revise their subdivision regulations to bring them into compliance. The county neglected to accomplish the revisions by the deadline, however, and close to 40 subdivision proposals were put on hold pending adoption of the needed revisions. The primary changes in local regulations that were made to meet the new statutory requirements included creation of a pre-application meeting process, a list of required application materials, and new timelines for the review process, as well as some procedures for dealing with new information during the process.

While some additional changes were made to bring the regulations into line with the county's Growth Policy, the changes made generally were the minimal to meet the new state statutory requirements. As a result many more changes are being contemplated such as updating the design and development standards. The Planning Department is also recommending that the road design and development standards, adopted in August 2005, be reviewed and possibly revised, as well as the changes made to the subdivision exemption process in November 2006.

The Interim Zoning Initiative, recently passed by the voters and requiring the Commissioners to establish county wide zoning within a year, will also most likely require more changes in the county's subdivision regulations.

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Planning Department proposes two-year agenda

By Michael Howell

If you had more resources available for planning in Ravalli County, how would you utilize them?

How can the County best utilize planning tools to guide growth in such a way as to preserve the attributes of Ravalli county that people care for?

Where do we need to get the Ravalli County Planning Program to in the immediate future?

In answer to these self-posed questions, the county's Planning Department has presented a proposal for a two-year agenda that would address new citizen-mandated planning priorities stemming from the passage of the Interim Zoning Initiative, which limits development to one house per two acres for a year and mandates the creation of county wide zoning, and the open lands bond. The agenda was created in the hopes that it will address key issues that keep arising such as appropriate land use, appropriate density, design standards and predictability of development and set in place a regulatory framework that would allow the county to meet the ever increasing demands for development in the county.

The county is already involved in several efforts at planning and zoning that need to be continued and incorporated into the overall effort at comprehensive zoning mandated by passage of the Interim Zoning Initiative. These include the Land Use Subcommittee's efforts to address countywide density zoning, the Corvallis area planning and zoning, the US Highway 93 Corridor Zoning, the Old Corvallis Road Area 3 Plan implementation, water course setbacks, and parks and recreation planning.

The agenda also calls for evaluation and revision of the county's Floodplain Regulations in an effort to update and modernize procedures and standards and provide for enforcement.

It calls for initiation of an Open Lands Program and establishment of an Open Lands Committee in response to the voter-approved Open Lands Bond.

The agenda also recommends the hiring of a consultant to help coordinate and develop the Countywide Zoning and the revision of the subdivision regulations.

As part of the new subdivision regulations and the overall planning program, the Planning Board will not be involved in the subdivision review process and will thus be freed up to concentrate on county planning and zoning issues instead. The subdivision review process will involve only two public hearings before the commissioners rather than going through a Planning Board review first.

A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, November 29, at 7 p.m. at the Commissioners' meeting room to discuss all aspects of the proposed agenda.

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Transition to five-member County Commission debated

By Michael Howell

Ravalli County voters have opted to expand the County Commission from a three-member board to a five-member one. The Local Government Review Study Commission, which placed the issue on the ballot, also planned for the transition. In that plan, submitted along with the recommendation for the ballot issue, no provision was made to transfer the current Commissioners with unexpired terms, Alan Thompson and Greg Chilcott, or the newly elected commissioner Howard Lyons, onto the new commission. As a result all five seats on the new commission will be up for vote and Thompson, Chilcott and Lyons would be required to run for election again if they want to serve on the new commission.

All three have protested that transition plan and at a meeting on Wednesday, November 22, a roomful of people showed up to support them in their protest. The commissioners and their supporters claim that the public did not understand that voting for the establishment of a five-member board would mean that the current and newly elected members would have to run again. They faulted the Local Government Study Commission with failing to fully inform the public about the consequences. An expert from the state on local government affairs, Ken Weaver, was consulted and agreed that the current commissioners should have a place on the new board.

The Local Government Study Commission held a meeting on Monday morning to consider a request from one of its members to reconsider the transition plan, but in a 2 to 1 vote did not approve the motion to revisit the transition plan.

Alec Sutherland, Chairman of the Study Commission, said that the transition plan was arrived at by consultation with the County Attorney, with officials in Helena and in relation to an Attorney General Opinion. He said that changing it now would only create legal problems.

"I know that there are some people dissatisfied with the transition plan, but that does not make a legal case for changing it at this point," said Sutherland.

The Study Commission also devised a way to meet the requirement of staggered terms by having a drawing amongst the newly elected five commissioners. The elected officials would draw from a box containing 6 poker chips, three white and three blue. Those drawing white chips would serve four-year terms. Those drawing blue chips would serve two-year terms. As a result there is a possibility that there may be either three four-year terms or three two-year terms, depending upon the drawing.

The Commissioners held a meeting on Monday, November 27 to consider the effect that a potential voter's petition for judicial review of the transition procedure might have and to consider a possible lawsuit for a declaratory judgment concerning the Attorney General's Opinion that is being quoted concerning the process.

At the meeting both Thompson and Chilcott claimed to be unaware that they would have to run for office again if the voters passed the measure creating a five-member board.

Several members of the public spoke to the issue, arguing that the information was presented by the Study Commission. Stewart Brandborg, President of Bitterrooters for Planning, said that his group had published the information in newsletters and newspaper advertisements. Another person quoted the Commissioners from a newspaper article stating that they were aware of the possibility. Commissioners' Administrative Assistant Glenda Wiles, who served as a non-voting ex-officio member of the Study Commission, said that she told the Commissioners innumerable times about the possibility.

Commissioner Chilcott said that, at the time, his interest was absorbed in the potential effects of the vote on taxpayers and on the cost of the transition, not on himself and whether he would have to run for office again. He said that he feels that he has a contract with the voters to serve out the six-year term that he was elected to.

All of the Commissioners expressed concern about candidates filing for the election and spending money only to find that the transition plan has been overturned by a judicial review. Chilcott also said that the law concerning the matter was confusing, unclear and ambiguous, and that the Commissioners should consider filing in District Court for a Declaratory Judgment concerning the AG Opinion being quoted in the case.

A Judicial Review may be instigated by 10 voters signing a petition claiming that the public was not properly informed about the repercussions of the vote. But the Commissioners, alone, may file for a declaratory judgment. No motion to file such a lawsuit was made, however.

Ravalli County Administrative Director Skip Rosenthal has provided an estimate of the cost involved in the transition to a five-member commission. Over a full year, the two new commissioners' salaries and benefits would total about $127,500. Increasing a part-time administrative assistant to full-time would cost $17,705. Creating office space would be a one-time expense costing about $15,000. The computers , phones and other technology required would total about $10,000. The cost of two elections (including a primary) would be $80,000. Training of election judges would cost about $1,180. And printing costs would amount to about $3,000. The grand total of all one-time costs and one month of salaries in this fiscal year would be about $122,175. Annual ongoing salary costs in the future would total about $145,205.

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Access limited at Poker Joe Fishing Access Site

By Michael Howell

Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) announced Monday that public access at Poker Joe Fishing Access Site (FAS), located on the Bitterroot River between Florence and Stevensville, is limited until an access agreement between FWP and adjacent landowners is reached.

Two landowners near the Poker Joe site have expressed concern over motorists driving too fast on the access road, parked vehicles blocking driveways and gates, garbage and litter, and overuse of the FAS. The landowners are also challenging public access rights at the site.

The landowners placed a chain across the access road, which may remain in place until the access dispute is settled, and motorists are encouraged to use caution on the roadway. FWP is working with the landowners to address the issues at the site.

According to FWP Information Officer Vivaca Crowser, there has been public access to the site for about 33 years, since the agency purchased one of the lots in the subdivision adjacent to the river. She said that the landowners believe that the purchase of the property only gives the agency and its personnel rights of access through their property to reach the site, not the general public.

Although Crowser said that the public could access the site on foot while the chain is in place, the landowners disagree and claim that there is no public access at all to the site, even on foot, over the private roadway.

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Effort to recall Scott fails

By Michael Howell

The ballot initiative to recall Hamilton City Councilor Bob Scott failed at the polls, but only by a few votes. The unofficial tally of the mail-in ballots, according to County Clerk and Recorder Nedra Taylor, showed Scott retaining his seat on the Council by two votes, 152 to 150. The official canvass of the votes was to be done by the County Commissioners on Tuesday, too late for publication in this week's Bitterroot Star. Taylor said that a single provisional ballot had not yet been counted, but that vote alone would not be enough to turn the election around.

The recall effort, spearheaded by Carol Schwan, was initially begun for a number of reasons, but the reason stated on the petition and the ballot accused Scott of official misconduct when he submitted a bill for reimbursement of $152 in travel expenses to the City Council in the spring of 2004. Scott had traveled to an educational seminar at the Local Government Center in Billings along with Councilor Robert Sutherland in Sutherland's car. Sutherland did not submit a request for reimbursement. The City Council balked at paying the claim and Scott withdrew his request. He never received any money.

Scott's tenure on the Council has been fraught with controversy. He was expelled from the Council in December of 2005, but then reinstated as part of the settlement of a lawsuit that Scott filed challenging the expulsion as illegal. Then he was charged with misdemeanor criminal assault for pressing down on a book in a city employee's lap at a committee meeting, but was acquitted in a jury trial of those charges.

"The recall election may have been close," said Scott, "but the real score is 3 to 0 in my favor." He was referring to the failed efforts to expel him from the council, the failed effort to convict him of criminal charges, and finally the failed effort to recall him. He said that the series of failed efforts says more about the people trying to oust him from office than it does about him. He considers all the efforts politically motivated.

"My hope is that they will drop this smear campaign against me and just let me do my job," said Scott.

Scott believes that his adversaries are primarily after him due to his political position on important issues, such as his pro-planning orientation, and his advocacy of controlled growth and impact fees, as well as his activism in matters of finance and budgeting.

He said that the whole thing has been tough on him and his family.

At the last City Council meeting Mayor Jessica Randazzo also acknowledged the strain that the recall effort had placed upon her, the council and the city employees. She stated that she hoped that people would respect the vote and that the council would be able to move on to address other important business and suggested that the council members consider attending a retreat to work on smoothing out relations.

Scott called the suggestion a good idea.

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Thomas retires as Chairman of Montana Board of Housing

By Michael Howell

After serving on the Montana Board of Housing for 16 years, and serving as Chairman for the last 14 years, Stevensville resident Bob Thomas is calling it quits. Thomas, a staunch Republican who served on the Board under various Republican Governors, was not reappointed by Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer.

"The Governor said that he wanted the 'best and the brightest,' I knew then that he would not be re-appointing me," joked Thomas.

But Thomas is glad for the opportunity he had to serve on the Board and proud of his accomplishments.

Thomas is a retired insurance agency owner and a graduate of the University of Montana. He currently works also with the Childhood Language Disorder Clinic at the University of Montana. He was appointed to the Board in 1991 and served as chairman since 1993.

The Montana Board of Housing (MBOH) was created by the Montana Housing Act of 1975. It is an agency of the state and operates within the Department of Commerce for administrative purposes. Under the Housing Act, the MBOH does not receive state or federal tax dollars or appropriations from the state's general fund. The MBOH is completely self supporting. Substantially all of the funds for MBOH operations and programs are provided by the private sector through the sale of tax-exempt bonds.

"It isn't a giveaway program," said Thomas. "It just provides people with a decent interest rate."

MBOH was started with $500,000 in government funds, he said, but MBOH paid that back in the first five years of operation. It has provided low-cost, flexible mortgage financing for nearly 30 years to nearly 42,000 Montana families. First time home buyers, single parents, senior citizens, and those with disabilities and special needs have all benefited from the housing programs provided by MBOH.

Besides the psychological benefits of a place to call home, the MBOH housing programs have boosted the state's economy. In 2005, MBOH invested $168 million in housing for over 2,000 Montana families by financing home loans and allocating tax credits to developers. Those efforts also created over 4,300 jobs.

"I am proud to recognize the MBOH as a cornerstone of economic development for Montana," writes Governor Schweitzer, "since access to affordable housing is a key issue considered by many businesses looking at expansion or relocation to Montana."

When Thomas first started serving on the Board, however, there were few if any Board of Housing loans being given to anyone outside the major cities in Montana. He decided to change that and took the MBOH on the road. Since then an MBOH board meeting has been held in almost every town in the state.

Thomas has also worked hard over the years investigating and advocating for our state a program for low cost prison-built homes. Not only does the program produce low-cost homes, it provides prison inmates who work in the program the chance for employment in the building industry when they are released. Thomas said that the program is not really in competition with local private enterprise. It is a program that has worked in other states. Although prisoners do the basic construction, trusses and cabinets are trucked in. He believes that Montana prisons could be producing well built homes for about $35,000 each to be delivered anywhere in the state. Thomas is asking the new board to continue pursuing such a program.

Thomas has thoroughly enjoyed his years working for MBOH.

"It is enjoyable because you see the benefits," he said. "You see the people that benefit."

And some of those benefits can be seen right here in the Bitterroot. The Burnt Fork Manor, in Stevensville, is just one multiple family housing project among hundreds, that has benefited from MBOH low interest loans.

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