Op-Ed by Patricia Grabow
Any lifelong football fan watching games again this year probably knows what a high-stakes, nail-biting finish feels like. You wouldn’t expect it, but that can happen in even the most seemingly unexciting city commission meetings too.
The September 19 meeting dragged on and, despite its strong positions taken in past, at first looked pretty grim. In the public comment section people and the Friends of Park County pointed out the proposed Mountain View subdivision at Exit 330 on I-90 was the same proposal the commission had already rejected once before last year, specifically because it subverted the Livingston Growth Policy that over 1600 citizens participated in creating – the collective vision of what we want our beautiful community to become.
Predictably, however, if someone can get rich by violating that, community be damned, they will try, and they clearly just leaned on the commission harder. No matter how you twist it, the Mountain View Subdivision, 2.4 miles from downtown, is what in planning is called sprawl. In contrast, the Growth Policy advocated what is called Smart Growth and infill development. Sprawl is and can turn into strip zoning, in this case – a death knell for any small town like ours. Smart Growth intelligently works outwards from the center instead of creating life-draining remote islands (they already tried another at the east end once before too). As I’ve discussed before, PFL and its Goldman Sachs investors saw a chance to get rich quick by sneakily subverting the Growth Policy at public expense for their selfish shot at get-rich-quick.
And they very nearly pulled it off, too.
Public comment also pointed out the Mountain View application was unsuitable for residential development for child safety considerations too, being surrounded by dangerous roads: I-90 and Highway 10, and if some latchkey kid for example needed to go to an after-school activity, they’d have to walk the 2.4 miles along the highway shoulder. Further, it’s a camel in the tent maneuver: its highway commercial zoning allows a motel to further weaken the downtown and visitation and erratically put it next to a house or anything else the developer wants. It became clear as the Tuesday night debate progressed that the Mountain View idea was just as bad for Livingston as it had been when it was turned down before; calling it a new Bozeman 19th Ave. could be an understatement.
The PFL/Goldman Sachs interest was always to profit at city residents’ expense, not only stealing the value of their town from underfoot, but – adding amazing insult to injury – making city taxpayers pay their infrastructure costs for them. (This is how the rich always get richer and you get poorer.) Their original plan was to have us cough up $11 million in partial benefit to one of the richest entities on the planet when the worst possible version of an underpass proposal went before the voters before.
And during the September meeting discussion touched on 21 potential harmful impacts.
But ignoring this is what happens to small towns when the one percent who own ninety percent move in with their sense of contemptuous entitlement. They want to make as much as they can for themselves and their stockholders , no matter how destructive the damage to the late-night worker, the single mother juggling three jobs, and the retired railroad worker on a fixed income.
The commission was supposed to hold the line again for its 7800 residents – and they very nearly failed. It happens in small towns when big money gets pushy. The behind-the-scenes investor partner for PFL here has a market cap of $108 billion managing assets of $2.51 trillion (roughly the GDP of Canada or Russia), To them, you are not even a gnat. If they marginally up their Return on Investment by turning you into Bozeman East and destroying the heart of our town, it means nothing. You are of no consequence. I’ve mentioned in past columns the Billionaire Wilderness effect, where in our case large entities like PFL, the Blank Foundation, HRDC, and even Explore Livingston can profess the best motives, but in representing the plutocracy, have exactly the opposite effects. And the people who were voiceless – or muted – before all the damage happened will remain even more voiceless after the damage.
When I first started drafting this, I wanted to call it Profiles in Courage, in hat tip to the Jack Kennedy book. But really, that far better described the previous meeting than this squeaker. Sadly, at this one, it was clear that political knees had buckled. The low point was best voiced by commissioner Torrey Lyons – the lone commissioner with any actual urban planning background – when approval looked inevitable, and he said, “It’s legitimately heart-wrenching to think about what the market’s going to do to that where it is,” and commissioner Karrie Kahle said almost exactly the same thing. It felt like a helpless moment.
Then they took a five-minute break, and maybe that was enough for just enough sense to trickle in. Commissioner Friedman had hitherto looked boondoggled by the developers and the other two reversing commissioners, but the impacts of all the effortful past discussion seemed to finally sink in, and he was swayed. And that proved key.
Curiously, a draft motion wording had been missing from their meeting packet, so they discussed how to phrase one for the vote. And in what could be called almost an act of brilliance, Lyons proposed one phrased as a rejection of the application. This was a surprise to the others, who thought normal practice was to make motions in the affirmative, which may have been the case – but they had the legal latitude to do it either way. And it made a statement that did in fact partake of courage, toward the applicants and maybe even the two knuckled-under commissioners. It said in effect, no matter how filthy rich you are, we told you this before: stop keeping coming back to us to grind us down and make us finally buckle. You might keep up your disgraceful, illegitimate ongoing lawsuit against Livingston and its residents, but we said no, and we meant no.
I’ve also mentioned before how this issue entwined a little with the up to $40-plus million proposed Wellness Center that you could believe had been used as a tool specifically to force violation of the Growth Policy. Thankfully it now sanely plans for adjacency to the Bonnell Park instead of Miles Park. Interestingly, when the oligarch plutocrats didn’t get additional county support funding, they hintingly threatened other donors might back out. (As if we needed reminding of their entitlement attitude.) But I recently drove through Cody and saw they managed a center on a “paltry” $7 million, and it’s still probably big for them. If you go to Meteetse, Wyoming, a town of 300, even they’ve managed a pool and rec center for much less.
So it’s not hard to imagine a better, energy efficient much smaller pool, pickleball courts, walking tracks, and more. You could implement solar heat with a pool as a reserve and make it a LEEDS structure. Our Growth Policy prioritized the environment. That is not what the 4 Ranges had in mind, but makes sense to Livingstonians.
But I’m still almost sweating from that meeting. Two and very nearly three people, almost retreated on their past firm votes against this subdivision, but the defenders snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It really was a David and Goliath moment, but with even less confidence going into it, since money usually comes out solidly the victor even against irreparable harm. MSU research says 1.9 million cars going past Livingston every year. If they turn off at exits 330 or 333, like in Columbus, whose downtown is nearly dead, they use the facilities at the exit and only 5% ever see our downtown. No Smart Growth, rich zillionaires calling the shots, impoverished residents and businesses, dead town. (You’d think even our timid local banks might finally start paying attention.)
Park County depends on $600 million a year from tourists. One proposal on the table is reviving downtown hotel infrastructure instead, since most of the large buildings in our downtown area built at the turn of the century were our original bread and butter. Another is sprucing up other core areas like Miles Park for more state competitions like cross-country skiing, etc., just as a Wellness Center could host swimming events. The possibilities, if we have enough sense to stay alive, are many.
We stand at the beautiful original gateway to Yellowstone. We have a downtown main street Architectural Digest called “one of the most beautiful main streets in the America.” We really do have to fight to keep these beautiful instead of slowly piecemeal-defiled into quick-bucks strip zoning by way of sneaky, back-door violations of our hard-won community Growth Policy, in order to profit the super-rich, with not enough people paying attention to what is trying to take them down.
But if it takes a surprise, hail-Mary, endzone pass in a mundane six-hour meeting to save our collective community skins, we can maybe live with it.