Thursday, May 23, 2024

Planning Commission OK’s public participation plan

Editor | May 15, 2024 7:50 AM

Following a public hearing Thursday night, the Columbia Falls Planning Commission approved a public participation plan for future planning projects in the city.

The public participation plan is one piece of a larger puzzle the city and the commission are working on in the compliance of Senate Bill 382, also known as the The Montana Land Use Planning Act.

The Act “front loads” the planning process, with most of the public input being taken when land use maps are created and zoning is overlayed on top of that.

The idea is to avoid rancor when individual projects come before the commission and in turn, the city council, as projects, at least in theory, should be largely in compliance with the law when they reach the commission and council.

“As public involvement in the administrative decision-making process for site-specific development will be more limited after the adoption of the Land Use Plan and potential subsequent five-year updates, public involvement during this process is vital. This document serves as a starting point for MLUPA compliance and will be revised as needed to ensure communication objectives are achieved,” the public participation plan notes.

Later, the plan talks about the participation process.

“… the scope of and opportunity for public participation and comment on site-specific development that is in substantial compliance with the Land Use Plan is limited only to impacts or significantly increased impacts not considered in the Land Use Plan, zoning regulations, or subdivision regulations. The opportunity to be engaged comes with the process establishing the plan and regulations, not with review of a site-specific project,” it notes.

The Commission did not craft its own plan from scratch — instead it used parts of Kalispell and Helena’s plans, which are already on the books.

The plan, when completed, will project housing trends and needs for the next 20 years, with 5 year updates.

The participation plan also outlines how information will be disseminated to the public, such as legal notices in newspapers, social media and through open houses and other meetings.

On Thursday several people spoke on the plan. Some said it was too vague, while others thought it was a good starting point for the whole planning process. One notable issue of concern, by both the public and commission members, was how the public is notified. Right now, notices often come just a couple of days before meetings. Some folks suggested a longer lead time, as some of the documents are long and densely worded. Others suggested the city use an email list serve to inform people, in addition to traditional media outlets like the Hungry Horse News.

City planner Eric Mulcahy noted that as the process goes on, the city will utilize contract help, which will have its own methods of disseminating information.

The law also provides for appealing decisions of the commission.

“… Any final administrative land use decision, including, but not limited to approval or denial of a zoning permit, variance, preliminary plat, or final plat, condition of a zoning permit of plat or interpretation of land use regulations may be appealed by the applicant or any aggrieved person to the planning commission,” the plan notes.  “Upon adoption of the Land Use Plan, the Planning Commission will hear appeals on land use decisions. Unless an amendment to adopted regulations is required, land use applications and permits will be reviewed, and approved or denied, by city staff. At this phase of the process, public input will be limited unless the permit or application in question differs significantly from the adopted Land Use Plan, zoning, or subdivision regulations. This section is subject to revision upon adoption of future regulations defining the public hearing and appeals process for the Planning Commission.”

Parties also have the option to sue in district court if they don’t agree with a commission finding.

The law itself is already being challenged in court. Montanans Against Irresponsible Densification filed suit challenging portions of the law as being unconstitutional. The suit, filed by Bozeman attorney Jim Goetz in Gallatin County District Court, claims the Land Use Act is trying to shoehorn high density housing in old neighborhoods or places where they are out of character with existing land uses.

“Homeowners in Montana have traditionally relied on single-family zoning designations to protect the scale, character and financial viability of their most important investment,” the group’s complaint charges, according to a story in the Montana Free Press from last December.

That case has yet to be settled, but if the plaintiffs prevail, the commission could find itself back to the proverbial drawing board again.