What’s a County Planning Board?

Up in the mountains of Montana, just south of Missoula, leaders of Ravalli County may occasionally have dispensed with administrative formalities. Sometimes, governing is still stunningly casual in small, rural places.

Nevertheless, a recent episode took even local residents by surprise. While considering a change in the structure of the Ravalli County planning board, the county commission hit a snag. The problem didn’t involve disagreements over politics or procedures. Rather, nobody has been able to find proof that the planning board legally exists.

In December, county officials embarked on a fruitless search for the law that supposedly created the planning board, digging through records dating back to 1938. While it’s impossible to say whether the law was simply lost or never passed in the first place, the commissioners decided not to leave anything to chance. They voted to dissolve the current board and start the process of forming a new one. “Even though the board serves only an advisory role,” says county attorney Jim Mickelson, “we wanted to make sure that decisions based on the board’s suggestions were not subject to legal challenge.”

The planning board flap comes at a crucial time. Planning issues are increasingly important in Ravalli County, whose population increased by 40% during the 1990’s to 35,000. For now, county commissioners are reviewing proposals for development themselves. When the reconstituted planning board meets again in March, it may have to grapple with writing a county-wide growth policy.

Christopher Swope