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How should the valley grow?

County hopes for broad participation in series of growth-policy meetings Flathead Valley residents often give thanks that they live in such a beautiful area. But how many will actually make an effort to help ensure that it remains that way?

Thats the great unknown facing the Flathead County Planning Office as it prepares to launch a series of public meetings on the growth-policy update.

The intent of the meetings, according to Assistant Planning Director BJ Grieve, is to gather comments about how local residents would like the county to develop, what characteristics they think are important to preserve and what theyd like to see change.

What we need to capture from these meetings is a sense of whats most important to people in the valley, what the priority items are that we can all agree on [such as water quality or open space], Grieve said.

Given this input, the planning office will come up with some draft goals and policies that would encourage future growth in a way that helps achieve the communitys vision, rather than trashing it. These draft goals will be further refined through additional public meetings, after which a final growth policy will be sent to the county commissioners for their approval.

However, a major concern for the planning office is that the validity of this community vision depends critically on the amount and type of input thats received: If a broad cross-section of the countys population refuses to participate in these meetings if the process is dominated by special-interest groups or ideological proponents then the resulting growth policy wont be a reliable guide for the future.

Consequently, the office is making every effort to inform people about the upcoming meetings and encouraging them to attend.

Well be doing posters, fliers, newspaper advertisements and radio ads announcing the meetings, Grieve said. Flathead Electric might let us put a flier in with their bills, which would get the information to almost everyone. Were also hoping to provide food during the meetings; several people have volunteered to help with that.

For the past few months, the planning office has included informational fliers about the growth policy update in hundreds of adjacent landowner notifications, which are sent to anyone who lives within 150 feet of a proposed subdivision or proposed land-use change.

Grieve sends out periodic e-mail updates as well, a convenient way for people to stay informed about progress on the project.

The planning office Web site also has some information about the growth policy, as does the Long-Range Planning Task Force Web site.

Its unclear, though, whether even the most extreme efforts will succeed in getting local residents to participate. Recent evidence suggests that they may be more likely to sit back and whine than to take positive steps towards a future they support.

For example, the commissioners and county road department get innumerable complaints about road dust every year yet two weeks ago, during a Health Board meeting on this issue, only a handful of people supported regulations that would do something about it.

And over the last 18 months, people regularly asked the county planning board to impose a moratorium on new growth policy amendments until the overall growth policy was updated but when Commissioner Joe Brenneman proposed exactly that, only three people showed up at a county hearing to endorse the move.

It remains to be seen whether the growth policy update attracts a broader level of participation.

The current policy was adopted in 1987. Its been modified a number of times since then, both by developer-driven amendments and through the addition of several neighborhood plans.

However, the basic goals and policies the heart of the document have never been updated. They continue to reflect an almost 20-year-old vision of the future.

Moreover, U.S. Census data suggests that at least half the countys population wasnt even here in 1987, meaning its even less likely that the growth policy represents what todays residents want for the valley.

The upcoming meetings are an opportunity to change that.

In preparation for the sessions, people should be thinking about where they want to see their community in the next five to 20 years, about what things need to change and what should be preserved, Grieve said. Thats it in a nutshell: Consider what you want to see in the future, so we can protect whats important and fix whats wrong.