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Back to drawing board for North Fork land regs

by TERESA BYRD
Staff Writer | June 16, 2021 8:50 AM

The Flathead County Planning Board indefinitely tabled a petition for a zoning amendment by the North Fork Land Use Advisory Committee last week, claiming that some of the language could get the county into legal hot water.

The petition, which was drafted by NFLUAC in April following an extensive, months-long outreach campaign for public input, amended text within the North Fork Zoning District regulations in an attempt to bring it more in alignment with the North Fork Neighborhood Plan.

Prior to this spring, the area’s Neighborhood Plan had last been updated in 2008, a full decade after the area’s zoning regulations were originally codified.

North Fork resident Kevin Halsey, co-chair of the NFLUAC’s ad-hoc committee in charge of drafting the amendments, said at a hearing June 9 that 2020 presented several major factors that illustrated to much of the community that the area’s early zoning regulations did not necessarily reflect community values that had subsequently been outlined in the neighborhood plan.

Among these were two applications for conditional-use permits submitted last fall. One was to create a commercial yoga retreat in a small residential subdivision. The other would have expanded guest accommodations for an area business. The increased guest accommodations request received quite a bit of opposition after a website related to the business had briefly advertised the potential for thousand-person festivals at the location.

Proposed text amendments in response to those applications included adding “camp or retreat center” as a conditional use that must be contained on a minimum lot size of 40 acres in an attempt to “limit the potential for conflict with neighbors specific to noise, traffic congestion and other potential detrimental impacts.”

Another amendment broadened the term “rental cabins” to “rental accommodations” to reflect the myriad structures that could be used for the purpose including wall tents and teepees, and defined the new term as a permitted use when limited to one accommodation per five acres of contiguously owned land. Rental accommodations exceeding that density would fall under conditional use.

Other amendments within the proposal included limiting the number of non-family employees working on-site at a home-based business operation to one, excluding the uses of meat packing plants and feed lots, limiting hostels to a minimum lot size of 40 acres, excluding “megachurches” and adding “work camps” as a use.

The amendment request was tabled by the board despite 33 of the 36 people who commented at the hearing supporting the proposals, and despite Flathead County Planning staff recommending the changes for approval to the board.

But boardmembers Greg Stevens, Elliot Adams and board chair Jeff Larsen expressed concerns about the writing of the text amendments, claiming that some of the new wording was either vague, arbitrary, or unenforceable and could potentially set the county up for future lawsuits.

One of the concerns raised by Adams and echoed by Larson involved the exclusion of “megachurch” as a use, with both members claiming the potential unconstitutionality of such a regulation.

One of the three public comments voicing opposition at the hearing came from last year’s yoga retreat applicant, Brooke Allison.

“I do believe that this whole thing is written as a reactionary response to two individuals who tried to make a living and support their families in the North Fork,” Allison said. “...And I think that’s a dangerous thing to do, to base an entire region’s property rights on two people.”

Instead of denying the application, the board offered to table it indefinitely in order to give the NFLUAC as much time as needed to make revisions that would clarify the amendments to make them less confusing and more enforceable in the future.

The hearing was concluded with a comment by board member Sandra Nogal who lauded the community for their efforts.

“I just want to thank you all because this was an amazing presentation, … probably one of the best community presentations that we’ve been party to,” said Nogal. “Trying to steer what’s going to happen in your area in a positive way and trying to mitigate the negative things that can happen is obviously more difficult than it sounds … but I think there’s a lot of good here, and it’s just a question of understanding the system and fine tuning [the amendments] to it.”