Flathead County planning officials have rewritten and adopted our valley’s growth policy. It affects nearly a half-million acres of private land located outside the three cities of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls. These three cities have also adopted their own growth policies.
What is a growth policy? Growth policies are critical to our valley’s future because they set forth the goals and policies that shape how we will expand our communities into these areas. A growth policy’s purpose is to make room for more businesses and homes while safeguarding the attractive town and country atmosphere that is essential to our identity and success as a region. Growth policies are not just about where or how we grow. They are also very much about good jobs, fair taxes, affordable housing choices and community character.
It’s a huge puzzle: A 1000-square mile valley wedged between Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
There are many pieces: The economy, taxes, jobs, natural resources, unparalleled beauty, community character, neighborhoods, housing, industry, retail, transportation, public services, clean air and water, hunting and fishing, hiking and boating access, and critical wildlife habitat.
The pieces are getting smaller: Between 1973 and 2000, 162,596 acres of land were divided into 18,671 parcels in Flathead County. Between 1974 and 1997, average farm size dropped 44 percent. Gated developments are becoming more common.
More and more people want a piece of the puzzle: Between 2000 and 2010, the population grew by 22 percent adding 16,457 new residents at a rate of growth twice that of the state — almost enough to fill a new city the size of Kalispell. Flathead County continues to have one of the fastest growing populations in Montana. How should we direct the growth that will come with so many new residents moving to the Flathead Valley? Will we expand our communities to make room for more businesses and neighbors and still safeguard the attractive patterns of town and country that are essential to our identity and success as a region?