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Follow the leader, Pt. 3

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The communities of Town Center and Meadow Village at dusk. PHOTO BY CHRIS KAMMAN

The road to incorporation

By Bella Butler and Mira Brody

This article is the third installment in an ongoing examination of leadership and governance in Big Sky. Visit explorebigsky.com to read the first two installments.

BIG SKY – Some have said that the concept of incorporating the census-designated place of Big Sky “raises hackles.” The very word itself is enough to either launch a prophetic conversation with your neighbor or shut down an interaction altogether.

The idea of limited government in Big Sky dates back decades and, for many, part of the resort town’s draw is its libertarian ethos while others are hungry for change.

Government philosophies aside, however, when the concept of incorporation is boiled down to its logistics, the water remains murky. A number of factors make Big Sky a difficult contender for a municipal makeover, including requirements laid out by Montana law that prove challenging for Big Sky. No matter your philosophies, heavy questions hang in the air: How is it done, and is it even possible?

According to Montana law, it all begins with a petition.

GRAPHIC BY MARISA OPHEIM

In order to begin the incorporation process, a petition requesting the incorporation of a potential city or town must be filed with the county commission. The petition must include a map of the proposed city limits and must be signed by 300 registered electors—or two-thirds, whichever is less—who reside within the area of proposed incorporation.

The petition must meet a few requirements. The proposed town must have 300 or more inhabitants, be three or more miles from a presently incorporated municipality, have a post office, get permission to include large tracts of land used for certain types of purposes such as agriculture and smelting, and each proposed ward must contain 50 or more registered electors and have 200 inhabitants for each square mile of land area.

A petition for Big Sky to incorporate as a municipality, likely to be classified as a town rather than a city, would require the identification of at least two proposed wards, which are essentially neighborhoods that elect councilmembers.  

That an area must qualify for incorporation based on density is cause for concern in places like Big Sky, where a landscape of peaks and valleys and community design have forced it into a sprawling layout. From where Big Sky’s main road, Montana Highway 64, intersects with U.S. Highway 191, populated areas are spaced out from one another, creating several villages that make up the entirety of Big Sky. 

This is a woe that Robin Hamilton, a former state representative from House District 92, is quite familiar with.

“If you take a nice little town in eastern Montana and plot it on a map, it’s really easy to place a grid over that and say, ‘aha, here’s a city,’” he told EBS in a Jan. 8 interview. One such town, Colstrip, is located in southeastern Montana where the Northern Rockies descend into the vast flats of the Great Plains. 

Colstrip was the most recent municipality to incorporate in Montana, and Mayor John Williams said that in 1999 when the roughly 3-square-mile town incorporated, “density was not an issue.” But for places with beautiful yet uneven mountainous topography such as Big Sky or Seeley Lake northeast of Missoula, Hamilton says, such simplicity is absent.

In the 60th Montana Legislature in 2007, Hamilton worked to amend legislation to be more amenable to mountainous, spread-out areas like Seeley Lake that were interested in pursuing incorporation but would struggle to qualify based on density. Prior to 2007, the law stated that proposed towns had to have 500 residents—not inhabitants—per square mile. Hamilton successfully turned a bill into law that session, changing the requirement so it read 200 inhabitants. 

Hamilton said Seeley Lake, much like Big Sky, is well known for its second homeowners, who would not be considered residents but rather part-time inhabitants of the incorporated area. Changing the term “residents” to the broader “inhabitants” and lowering the number made it easier for places like Seeley Lake, Big Sky, or other comparable areas in the state to qualify for incorporation.

“Seeley Lake had terrible water problems and was a sprawling town,” Hamilton said. “They had no hope of incorporation and the advantages that come with incorporation … A couple others like Big Sky said ‘Oh, that will work for us too.’”

Seeley Lake is still an unincorporated CDP.

In the early 2000s, the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce convened the Big Sky Community and Infrastructure Group, a subcommittee that explored incorporation, among other local government topics, for at least four years. According to one former member, Kay Reeves, it was apparent early on in the group’s work that the density qualifier—at the time 500 residents per square mile—would be a dominant hurdle for Big Sky. 

“The first thing we had to tackle was [whether we were] even dense enough to incorporate,” Reeves said in a Jan. 8 interview with EBS. 

Since 2007, the density qualifier has been adjusted to better accommodate sprawling destination areas like Big Sky, but it will still be left up to census data to determine if a proposed municipal boundary in Big Sky would qualify. 

Reeves and Dick Fast were two of the group’s three members who stuck with the Chamber subcommittee through its end in 2009. Both say that given the density standard, among others, incorporating Big Sky would be challenging, but feasible. 

The irony—and challenge—in trying to approach the incorporation process is that while the goal is to create a government, there is no such centralized organization to help propel the effort until it’s successful.

“I think [incorporation is] certainly doable,” Fast said in a Jan. 10 interview. “It’s just going to take a few people, or a group of people, working on some of those details.” He added that the group, likely a dedicated volunteer citizen initiative, would need to be “willing to do the work, want to see it happen, and are patient enough to take a few arrows to the body.”

As Fast, a 20-year Big Sky resident understands it, once the boundary’s density qualifies, the process becomes less turbulent. 

“I think [incorporation is] certainly doable. It’s just going to take a few people, or a group of people, working on some of those details.” He added that the group, likely a dedicated volunteer citizen initiative, would need to be “willing to do the work, want to see it happen, and are patient enough to take a few arrows to the body.”

– Dick Fast, Big sky Chamber member

After a valid, qualifying petition is submitted, county commissioners order a census within the proposed boundary then call for an election and the people choose to either incorporate or not. If the ayes have it and Big Sky voted to incorporate as a municipality, the town would then move forward with electing officials and going through what Fast calls the “intellectual” work: choosing what kind of government to adopt from options provided by law, such as a council with a mayor or manager, or a host of other options. 

These steps are hypothetical of course, since a petition has never been filed nor has a vote been conducted. 

“The way the process has it set up, you go through all of those logistical things and then it goes to a vote,” Fast said. “And I think you then either accept the outcome of that vote or you don’t. The problem is we’ve never gotten to that vote.”

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