I live in Lemhi County, Idaho, but nobody else in my family ever did, and recently, that's become a problem. I love the boiled-down democracy of city council meetings, the frank discussions of local school boards, the drama of planning and zoning hearings – and no, I'm not kidding. I find local politics fascinating, and I've have rarely met an opportunity for public comment that I didn't seize.
But now, some of my fellow citizens are trying to insert what I lovingly call the "grandpappy clause" into our local system of democracy. This most recently arose as our Lemhi County Planning and Zoning Commissioners entertained revisions to the county's comprehensive plan and development code.
Perhaps I'm crazy, but this seems to me like a fantastic time to come together as a community and outline what we love about this natural wonder we call home. We love our farms and ranches, the open space they provide, the county fair, the sweeping view of the Beaverheads, the Salmon and Lemhi rivers, steelhead fishing, elk hunting, seeing ospreys swoop down on wriggling trout. We're nestled between the Continental Divide and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, and we're waru of suffering the fate of communities such as the Bitterroot Valley of Montana and Idaho's Teton County, where local people watched as subdivisions swallowed up agricultural ground. The resulting traffic and the financial strains on schools and law enforcement swallowed up local treasuries.
In Lemhi County, people are aware of the need to plan for the future. Hundreds of residents have already weighed in on a county plan, changing wording and challenging old assumptions. But as our planning and zoning commissioners prepare to vote on the new development code, a new clause has been proposed, one that details not where your parents were born, but where their parents were born.
Some of my fellow residents have suggested that if your testimony doesn't begin with the phrase, "My grandpappy settled in Lemhi County (insert number) years ago…," your comment should be placed in a pile labeled "Transplants, vocal minority or strangers who have come from other states."
I am not from another state, thank the good Lord, but I proudly fall under the first two labels. My husband and I transplanted ourselves from the Idaho desert to the mountainous Salmon seven years ago, and we've never been sorry. I believe that this remarkable part of the world is a place my people would have loved, if they had not ended up high-centered on the lava rocks of southern Idaho long ago.
As for being part of a vocal minority -- well, guilty as charged. Democracy means more to me than majority rules. I believe innovation happens when someone attempts to try something new. More than a few changes in the world have come about just because of a vocal minority. My grandpappies would be proud of me if they thought I was playing that role -- being a vocal minority in this or any other community in the world.
Settling on a comprehensive plan may not sound exciting, but it is important. If enough citizens care to become involved, these documents can respect the culture of a place and its people and also chart the course ahead. The last thing a comprehensive plan should do is disenfranchise a broad cross-section of a community's citizens.
Fewer than 8,000 people live in Lemhi County, and so the locals celebrate when a new surgeon, a fiddle player, a Little League baseball coach or a family with straight-A students moves to town. The county treasurer doesn't hesitate to add new homeowners to the tax rolls. We don't require most of our newcomers to apply for a temporary work visa.
The first night I spent in our new home in Salmon sealed my fate. I woke up at midnight and saw a herd of elk in the moonlight. The still-snowy peaks of the Continental Divide stood out in silhouette, and I heard Jesse Creek's spring runoff warble through my window screen. Since that first night, this has been my home. We'll raise our children here, and someday my ashes will mingle with this sandy soil.
The notion that multigenerational residents should receive preferential treatment in local democratic processes is shortsighted and bigoted, and, quite frankly, it stinks … a lot like a grandpappy's old boot. Sooner or later, after all, everybody can use a new pair of shoes.
Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and rabble-rouses in Salmon, Idaho.
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