By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners approved a resolution last Friday that amends the voter approved Citizen Initiative passed in 2012 requiring that any County initiated Growth Policy, Zoning District or Regulation go on the ballot and be approved by a majority of the qualified voters before going into effect. The amended resolution now allows a Growth Policy and Zoning District to be established without going before the voters if it is for the purpose of forming a Targeted Economic Development District (TEDD) and all the landowners in the proposed district agree to be included.
Once a TEDD is established, taxes from any increase in taxable value over the base value established at the beginning is placed in a fund and used specifically for infrastructure improvements within the district. It is a tool for economic development that has been used by the Town of Stevensville to form a light industrial district on the north side of town and one on the Stevensville Airport property east of Stevensville.
Planning Department Manager Terry Nelson said that when the county began looking at the establishment of a TEDD it ran into a snag with the Citizen Initiative. He said the intention of the voters was to not have county initiated zoning put on their property without their permission.
“So what this resolution is looking at doing is to clarify that language so that a TEDD could be created,” said Nelson. “That would allow us to meet the state requirements of having a growth policy and zoning in a very limited area if all the landowners in that area agree to it.”
Commissioner Jeff Burrows noted that something like this could be done as a voluntary zoning district except that county property is involved.
Nelson noted that the state Department of Revenue has interpreted the law concerning the establishment of TEDDs to require county initiated zoning and not voluntary citizen initiated zoning. He said in reality it is sort of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” if you are requiring 100% voluntary participation in the county initiated zoning.
“This would allow us to put in a growth policy and zoning in a particular area and meet the state requirements,” Nelson said.
Commissioner J.R. Iman said that this kind of district, if formed around the airport with 100% landowner approval, creates a growth policy and zoning only for those landowners.
“Why ask the citizens of Darby to vote on a district in the Hamilton area?” he asked.
Burrows said the difference was that it involved county property at the airport and all the citizens of the county have a stake in that.
“Somebody in Darby does have something to say about a piece of county property,” said Burrows.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott asked for attorney clarification and Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht said that citizens have an interest indirectly in any property the county owns but, under the law, the County Commissioners, as elected officials, have the right to buy, sell, lease or otherwise dispose of property. He said the commissioners should get citizen input during the process to be sure the public was involved, but the commissioners can exercise their rights.
Chilcott said that when he was out campaigning he heard from people that they didn’t want zoning forced on them and defeating the Growth Policy was the most expedient way to ensure that. He said what was being proposed would not shove anything down anybody’s throat.
“We have an elegant solution here to accommodate those concerns but still allow us to enhance business opportunity in Ravalli County. Nothing about this violates what the citizens were trying to achieve in that process,” said Chilcott.
In public comment, Michael Howell said that the commissioners don’t necessarily know what the voters meant when they passed an initiative forcing any county initiated zoning to go before a vote of the public, and before they change it they should find out.
“I think you should convince them and not just yourselves that this is what they want,” said Howell.
Terry Polumsky said that she was involved in the growth policy and zoning disputes and was one of those who does not want top down zoning.
“But I am also one of those citizens who remembers when we were the log home capital of the world…,” said Polumsky. “This is a tool we can use. In my mind you have a responsibility to pass this today because it opens the discussion that Mr. Howell was referring to.”
She said that it was not about any particular TEDD like the one being discussed around the airport. “We are talking about making this amendment so that we have the ability to have these TEDDs created.”
The legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow citizen initiated zoning to be used for establishing a TEDD instead of just county initiated zoning but Polumsky said waiting on a legislative fix was not possible because by that time the funding that is available now will have disappeared.
“This does not take away the right of the public because the TEDD process requires public hearings and public input,” said Polumsky. “We are not a democracy. We live by democratic principles but we are a republic. We have a representative government and you have a responsibility to look after the county and we need economic development. I’m begging please let us have the tools so our county can grow.”
Foster echoed Polumsky’s plea. She said Ravalli County could not compete economically when other counties are using these TEDDs to draw business in their direction. She said if the commissioners did not act today the funding that is available now would be lost.
RCEDA board member Rick Fuhrman agreed that it was essential for economic growth in the county. He said people look for stability and predictability when locating a business and if they don’t see it they go elsewhere. He said the fact that it takes 100% agreement among the landowners makes it acceptable.
Stevensville Mayor Gene Mim Mack said, “We have a couple of TEDDs and it’s been a great tool.” He suggested if they go forward they should give a little thought to any unintended consequences of the resolution and be sure the language doesn’t open some sort of Pandora’s box. “The zoning or no zoning issue is alive and well,” he said.
Chilcott noted that this amendment only allows the TEDD process to happen and that process involves the public.
“This doesn’t create zoning,” he said, “and when it comes to that process the citizens will tell us if we messed up.”
Commissioner Doug Schallenberger said that he was against the Growth Policy but he is in favor of TEDDs. He said he was elected to do the will of the people.
“I know a majority of people would like to see economic development in the county,” said Schallenberger. “You can’t get there by doing nothing. I’d like to see us move forward.”
The commissioners approved the amendment unanimously, although Commissioner Ray Hawk added, “reluctantly.”