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No Ref 1 Organizers get out Vote in Park County

With less than three weeks from a vote, county growth policy proponents look to safeguard rural way of life

As Park County prepares for a June 4 vote on its growth policy, organizers are making a final push to protect the county's rural lifestyle in the face of rapid growth. Photo courtesy No Ref 1
As Park County prepares for a June 4 vote on its growth policy, organizers are making a final push to protect the county's rural lifestyle in the face of rapid growth. Photo courtesy No Ref 1
by David Tucker

In Park County, there’s not much left to do but vote. With ballots mailed to registered voters May 10, the eleventh hour has arrived, and the future of the county growth policy—and the singular landscape it addresses—hangs in the balance.

At a virtual town hall meeting on May 16, Vote No Ref 1 organizers kept their message simple. “Vote no,” said treasurer Colin Davis, former owner of Chico Hot Springs and longtime Park County resident. “It’s fair to say the growth policy helps determine the future of our community. It’s the future of Park County that is really on the ballot.”

With less than a month to go before the June 4 vote, campaigners have been applying a full-court press of community outreach, including in-person gatherings from Gardiner to Wilsall. Advocates continue to educate around several key messages, mobilizing support for the current policy while the planning department works on an update.

“Over 800 people commented on the existing growth policy when it was created,” said Randy Carpenter, Friends of Park County executive director and longtime professional planner. “The comments people made back then echo what we found in our polling. They highly value water quality, open space, rural character, wildlife and agriculture.”

According to the most recent We Will Park County survey, 94 percent of respondents agree that preserving natural resources is important, and 53 percent identified the landscape as the thing they like most about living in Park County. Natural amenities were second on the list, and quality of life third.

It is exactly those values No Ref 1 organizers hope to protect. “The growth policy reflects the values and concerns … of the people who live here,” Carpenter continued, “and unplanned haphazard development threatens those values.”

Speaking from experience, Carlotta Grandstaff offered insights as a former commissioner in Ravalli County, the only county in Montana to have repealed its policy. “I got a lot of phone calls… from people very unhappy with things going on in their neighborhoods,” she said, citing a busy weekend flea market in a rural area, an around-the-clock sawmill near homes, and a gravel pit on an undeveloped lot in the middle of a neighborhood.
According to a recent survey, 94 percent of respondents agree that preserving natural resources is important, and 53 percent identified the landscape as the thing they like most about living in Park County. 
While proponents believe retaining a sound planning document should be motivation enough to keep the policy, there are also practical reasons to consider. Grant funding that supports critical services could be unavailable without a growth policy, and in a county with a budget deficit, every dollar counts.

At an April 9 commission meeting, $200,000 was cut from the Park County Sheriff’s Department and an additional $200,000 was cut from the county roads budget, after which the county remained $150,000 over budget.

According to commissioner Clint Tinsley, the county has received $56 million in grants tied to growth policy requirements just in his time on the commission, and of the 264 bridges in the county, half need upgrades.

“Scrapping this growth policy will negatively impact the level of funding and support we receive to maintain our rural roads, our bridges and our infrastructure in the county,” Davis said at the virtual town hall on May 16. Frank O’Connor, a small-business owner and former planning board member, reiterated the policy’s financial significance. “If we don’t have a growth policy, we’re going to be throwing away a lot of money.”

With ballots in mailboxes, the referendum is a reality, and in less than a month the county will have a result.

“It’s important to start with values,” Carpenter said. “What do people care about and what are the threats to those values? That’s why repealing the growth policy would be such a crazy idea, especially in a time of unprecedented growth.”

For registered voters in Park County, the opportunity to inform the future is now. Ballots must be returned in person or by mail by June 4 at 8 p.m.

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David Tucker
About David Tucker

David Tucker is a freelance journalist covering conservation, recreation and the environment in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
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