Kalispell, Mont.,- Over the breakfast special at the Outlaw Inn, Steve Herbaly reflected on the joys of his job as director of planning for Flathead County.
the night before, he and his staff had been called socialists,
communists and general purveyors of the demise of America at a
public hearing over the county's proposed new master plan. After
one member of his staff and one member of the local planning board
received death threats, Herbaly's department underwent bomb-scare
training, and now it is considering purchasing bullet-proof vests.
"We're not very popular right now," says the
bespectacled, soft-spoken Herbaly. That's an understatement: Since
the county government voted last month to approve the new master
plan, which recommends planning, zoning and land-use strategies,
the opposition has grown in size and fervor.
local group has filed a lawsuit to invalidate the plan and
initiated an effort to recall the county commissioners. A
countywide movement is also under way, gathering signatures to
force a referendum on the plan's adoption. In this otherwise
peaceful-looking scenic valley south of Glacier National Park in
northwestern Montana, some citizens are forming militias just in
case "government gets out of hand."
always this way. In fact, recent planning efforts in Flathead
County had a stellar beginning. Two years ago, a survey indicated
that more than 90 percent of county residents supported controlling
or directing growth and development. As recently as a year ago, The
Wall Street Journal heralded a newly formed citizen's planning
coalition with the headline: "Montana Entrepreneurs,
Environmentalists Join Hands."
But what was
until recently touted as the "Flathead solution" has become what
appears to be the Flathead dissolution, as warring factions of the
community grow increasingly hostile and hyperbolic, and as some
planning advocates genuinely fear for their
Boom spawns a
Under Montana state law, all counties must
adopt master land-use plans. If there is one county that needs it,
it's Flathead. With such draws as Big Mountain ski area - the
largest in the state - Tahoe-sized Flathead Lake, the Bob Marshall
Wilderness and alluring small towns such as Whitefish, Kalispell
and Columbia Falls, the county has become a magnet for newcomers,
retirees and second-home buyers. In the last decade, Flathead
County's population has grown 14 percent, compared to the state
average of 1.4 percent.
Since 1990, construction
requests have doubled in the Connecticut-sized county. Schools are
crowded, and rubber-stamped subdivisions are replacing agricultural
lands at an alarming rate. Property taxes have skyrocketed, with
some lakeshore properties increasing by as much as 300 percent,
says local planning board chairman Bill Dakin.
"We realized our prosperity was based on quality
of life," says Dakin, a real estate agent, "and that that quality
was threatened by a total vacuum of planning and zoning."
So in 1992, a diverse group of citizens formed a
coalition to write a new county master plan - the policy document
used by local officials to guide development, set regulations and
make land-use decisions. Flathead County already had a plan, but it
was out-of-date and inadequate to cope with the current growth
In a remarkable show of support, the
new citizens' group, called the Cooperative Planning Coalition
(CPC), raised half a million dollars, mostly from local landowners.
With assent from the local government, CPC hired a professional
planning team, Aspen-based Design Workshop, to write the county
Building local consensus on the new plan
was a paramount concern. To ensure widespread participation, CPC
and Design Workshop held more than 250 public meetings over a
two-year period. Local real estate agents signed on, as did
ranchers, environmentalists and even Plum Creek Timber Co., the
county's largest employer and landowner.
grass-roots planning document took shape, encompassing everything
from encouraging protection of agricultural lands and open space to
recommending that large subdivisions be subject to strict,
consistent review and provide impact fees to help fund roads,
sewers and schools.
As the flesh-and-bone plan gained
momentum, so did an emerging opposition. Residents not involved in
the early stages have begun to fight the document; others got cold
feet. Now they seek to throw out the entire document through a
referendum, and they might succeed.
indication of county sentiment, anti-plan candidate Robert Watne
beat pro-plan David Mason by a wide margin in November's county
"People came here to get
away from zoning," says Chris Brown, chairwoman of Montanans for
Property Rights, a newly formed group. "Who has the right to tell
somebody who pays taxes what they can and can't do with their
In an effort to appease plan critics,
the county agreed in early December to a non-binding, "advisory"
referendum during the general election in the spring of 1996.
Planner Herbaly says that will give his staff time to get out,
educate the public, and conduct small, neighborhood-by-neighborhood
meetings to tailor the master plan to the needs of different
But Brown doesn't want to wait. By 1996,
she argues, land-use regulations may already be in place. "A year
and a half is too far away," says Brown, who will continue to
gather signatures in the hope of forcing a special election. "It
will be brought to a vote a lot earlier."
Meanwhile, the once-progressive plan has
undergone deep surgery. What was a detailed 86-page draft is now a
milquetoast 17-page final version, devoid of any implementation or
enforcement mechanisms. Gone, for example, are Design Workshop's
suggestions for watershed and ecosystem
"It's the incredible shrinking master
plan," observes Roger Sullivan, a Kalispell attorney and planning
The recent spate of attacks on the plan
has left supporters scratching their heads, wondering where all
this opposition came from after two years of public meetings and
relatively smooth sailing. Now that the document may be overturned,
or at least ignored, some wonder if the money for outside
consultants was well-spent.
"We could have done
this for a fifth the price," says Tom Jentz, assistant planner for
the county. But there's no question the services provided by the
consultants, including extensive high-tech geological mapping,
would have taxed the small local staff and taken much longer. And,
concedes Jentz, the opposition would have been there just the
"Are there things we would have done
differently? Yes," says Design Workshop consultant Deanna Snyder.
"We should have done more publicity, more education, sought out
opponents from the beginning. We knew there was a somewhat
controversial political climate, but didn't realize to what
Whether seeking the input of the most
radical opponents would have prevented the current clash is a
matter of debate. But observers say poor timing is part of the
As the last election made clear,
anti-government, anti-regulation sentiment appears stronger than
anyone predicted. The Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period
for the purchase of handguns, became law last November, and fed
Montana's conservative backlash, as did the prospect of a Clinton
health care plan and increasing restrictions on logging in national
"Local land-use planning is taking the
brunt of general dissatisfaction with national forest policies and
national taxes," says Jentz.
But for many in the
Flathead, the final straw may have been the county's new building
permit regulations, which required a small fee and a permit for new
structures or major additions to commercial or residential lots.
Although entirely separate from the master plan, the move seemed to
confirm suspicions that planning would mean more bureaucracy, fees
In an unexpected fervor of
opposition, Flathead organizers gathered nearly 10,000 signatures
to bring the measure to ballot. In a special election last August,
the permit regulations were overturned by a whopping 6-to-1 margin,
according to County Commissioner Sharon
"There has been a groundswell of anger
since the building permits," says Stratton, a Democrat. "A lot of
the fury over that was based on misinformation about fees and
Stratton blames right-wing organizers
for spreading false rumors and fanning the fires for a revolt
against planning and government. "A few agitators have recently
moved to the valley," she says. "Everything seemed to be going
along smoothly and all of a sudden there are all these new fears
planted in people."
One of the newcomers singled
out by Stratton and others is Jess Quinn, a former car salesman and
high-tech entrepeneur who recently moved to the area from Idaho.
What is most disconcerting, say Quinn's critics, is his ability to
bridge moderate and extreme ideologies. In addition to helping lead
the popular building permit revolt, Quinn is also active in efforts
to form a militia in Flathead County.
guest on local talk-radio, Quinn says the county master plan
represents a small step in a grand governmental scheme: a
deliberate shift toward socialism, erosion of personal
constitutional liberty and the decay of the American way of
To much applause at the recent Kalispell
hearing, Quinn made himself clear: "We want to be self-governing so
we can become self-sovereign. Now we're going to defend what we
Another key Flathead agitator is John
Stokes, perhaps best known for leading the effort to secede a new
"Freedom County" from Snohomish County in Washington (HCN, 9/5/94).
He moved to Bigfork, Mont., last year, and has been actively
fighting the Flathead's proposed master plan. "I came here to
escape government regulation," he says. "Planning is pure
It's hard to gauge the influence of
Quinn and Stokes, but there is no question their messages have
reached many people. Notes Tom Power, an economist at the
University of Montana and a resident of conservative Ravalli
County, south of Missoula: "There is a self-selection process that
brings many people to the non-urban West. These are people with an
ideological predisposition who are most vulnerable to independence,
anti-government and property rights slogans."
As far as the emergence of a volatile and
threatening radical right, the Flathead is hardly
In Ravalli County, which is also writing a
new planning and land-use document and where 20 ultra-right-wing
constitutionalists recently published a notice of "emancipation"
from the federal government, county officials had to pass an
ordinance banning weapons in public meetings. Officials in
Butte/Silverbow County did the same.
opponent of planning is a militia-linked sympathizer; most are
simply rural conservatives. But as more bridges form between
right-wing extremists and more moderate conservative interests,
there is increasing cause for alarm, says Flathead planner Herbaly.
"What's breaking down is civilized, functional debate. Some of
these people say they don't have to play by anyone's rules, that
they can kill agents of the system. Once it gets to that level of
fantasy, it's just too much."
An example of the
increasing coziness between such groups can be found in the October
newsletter of the National Federal Lands Conference, a Utah-based
wise-use group that encourages counties to pass ordinances that
codify the supremacy of local government over federal land agencies
(HCN, 2/24/92). The front-page article argues "Why there is a need
for the militia in America."
At the recent
hearing in Kalispell before the local planning board, members of a
newly formed citizen militia sat in attendance. One organizer
distributed a flyer stating that community planning is "a socialist
plan to enslave us ... and take over our property in the process."
Announced car-wash owner Jack Paulson of Bigfork: "If I'm not
allowed to vote on the destiny of my property, I'm going to be one
unhappy José. I'll have no choice but to join a group and
Such rhetoric, while mostly
dismissed as hyperbole, has no doubt sent a small chill down the
spine of local officials. Furthermore, it has effectively dampened
momentum for community planning across Montana. At a public meeting
in Helena last month, where officials presented a plan for
emergency zoning measures to check lakeshore and hillside
development, the crowd went wild.
"A lot of
intimidating remarks were made to the planning board, staff and
supporters," observed Alan McCormick, assistant planner for Lewis
and Clark County. "Supporters felt they couldn't speak out. There
was no free speech at that meeting. The planning board was quite
intimidated and made a recommendation to table the measure
indefinitely," he added.
Planning, like gun
control, abortion and gay rights, has become a magnet for gadflies
of the radical right. "Land-use planning is the next wave, the new
central forum for recruitment and hate-stirring by fringe groups,"
says Ken Toole, director of the Helena-based Montana Human Rights
Network. "What's at stake is nothing less than democratic process."
One of the problems with the far right, says
Toole, is that it's hard to compromise with them, and furthermore,
when you do, you're giving credence to their anarchist, religionist
or constitutionalist leanings.
center of the West seems to be moving right," he says. "It's not
just planning that is at risk, but public education and progressive
institutions in general."
Others say education
and compromise with opponents are the only ways to prevent a
planning impasse. The planning process in Flathead County, lengthy
and inclusive as it has been, may have happened too fast, says
Marty Zeller, one of the Design Workshop consultants. "Even though
there were endless public meetings, there probably wasn't enough
time to educate everybody, to take them from a 19th century Wild
West attitude about planning to a 20th century system of land-use
management," he says.
In the meantime, other
Montana counties, struggling with master planning, have found in
the Flathead a cautionary tale. "We're taking our time," says Tim
Schwecke, planning director in Ravalli County. "We're going real
In an effort to bring the far right into
the process early, officials in Ravalli have appointed a diverse
citizen board to review a draft of the local master plan. Seated on
the committee are members of the groups We the People and Friends
of the Constitution, organizations which endorse militias and tax
"It was our hope that we could have a
meeting of the minds, find some common ground," says
yet, Schwecke concedes. "We will get a plan of some type," he adds.
"I'm not sure what it will look like, but we will get something."
free-lances from Steamboat Springs,