Citizens’ toolkit

We need to get more involved with local development and growth.


But first, let’s understand the landscape.

How does private property get developed, and how can we make sure it happens in the best way possible?

The Flathead Valley has a finite amount of land. We understand the impulse to cringe when a new apartment complex pops up, or to rally a posse of indignant neighbors to flood a public hearing. But that’s not going to affect meaningful change as our valley grows.


A few definitions to keep in mind:

Zoning: The way government controls the physical development of land (what kind of buildings can go on it) and what the property can be used for (residential, commercial, agricultural, industrial). Zoning laws are not necessarily the same from one city or county to the next.

Building Permit: A document issued by a governing body ensuring that a construction project conforms to the applicable building codes and zoning regulations. Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls require building permits; the county does not.

Annexation: The process of bringing property into city limits. Usually, property owners request annexation so that they can use city water and sewer or develop at a higher density. Cities are often faced with the choice of annexing a property so that development conforms to the more stringent city regulations, or not annexing it and watching it develop in a more sprawling way with fewer regulations. Annexed properties have city zoning regulations applied to them according to how they fit into the city’s growth policy, which is a big-picture plan for how cities expect to see growth over the next 20 years.

Flathead County Zoning: The vast majority of Flathead County is public land, but less than 30% of the remaining zonable land actually has zoning regulations applied to it. The county does not require building permits for any projects. Due to the lack of zoning regulations, most county projects and developments do not require a public hearing for approval.


What is the typical

development process?

What is the typical

development process?

This is an oversimplification of the complete permitting and building process in the Flathead, but it attempts to illustrate the lack of planning and oversight for developments happening in Flathead County compared to those within city limits.

So You Want to Have an Opinion?

Get involved in development in a meaningful way

(start by hanging up your pitchfork)



No really. Three county commissioners and the planning board that they appoint make all of the Flathead County development decisions outside the city limits. If you aren’t happy with development in the Flathead, see what your commissioners stand for and vote accordingly.

Write to the city and county planning staff.

If planners know that the community wants dense, mixed-use development, they will be more likely to propose code reforms to facilitate this type of development. Developers propose what they think a community wants and what they can get approved to build; better development codes will lead to better project proposals. By the time a project generates a public hearing, developers may have already spent months working with the planning board and tens of thousands of dollars on impact studies. At that point neither the developers nor the board will want to sink it for any small reasons.

Attend planning board and other city and county meetings.

Advocate for code changes and reasonable revisions to proposed projects to the elected leaders. Keep in mind that the public can only give input on the small number of projects that are required to go through a public hearing. Most developments don’t require this. Another reason why voting for officials that support your views on development is crucial.

Not In My Back Yard?

Though a major change near your home can be a lot to adjust to, it’s not a valid reason for the planning board or city council to deny a project. Large projects generally require traffic, environmental, and geological studies. If the professionals say a project can safely and appropriately proceed, your personal opinion of not wanting it will simply not carry much weight, especially if the project fits within the city’s growth plan.

Remember that this is not a conspiracy.

The Flathead Valley is a good place full of well-meaning people. City councils and the county commissioners are approving projects because they believe they’re the best decision for the community. They do not benefit financially from development projects; the planning board members are volunteers appointed by the elected officials. If you don’t agree with the types of projects that are being approved, see point #1 above. (VOTE.)

Is it county or city?

Most of the Flathead Valley is county. Not sure what the difference is between county and city zoning? Visit this website to view the boundaries.


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