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Ravalli County commissioners have granted conditional approval to the county's largest subdivision.

On Monday night, commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the FlatIron Ranch subdivision, a 389-acre development that will hold 551 units east of Hamilton off Golf Course Road.

It took three public hearings totaling almost 20 hours for commissioners to review the application, which was initially submitted to the county planning department in June 2006.

"Conditional approval" means the commissioners have 30 working days to issue an official written decision, which outlines the conditions of approval.

Commissioners accepted the developer's proposed phasing plan, which calls for phase one of the 15-phase project to be filed by December 2014.

Prior to taking action, the commissioners each spoke about the subdivision, saying the application meets the requirements of state law and deserves to be approved on those grounds.

Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that while many public comments have suggested that more residents are against the subdivision than for it, the commissioners can't decide based on a popular vote.

"While I understand wanting to do that, this is an application of law, and there are legal standards that exist and laws to follow," Chilcott said. "And to do otherwise, we would not be doing our jobs."

Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said the landowner has equal protection under the law.

"We did not ever ask the question of, ‘Do I like it?' " Kanenwisher said. "We never asked the question of, ‘Do we think it will be financially successful for the developer?' The criteria are what they are."

Commissioner Suzy Foss echoed her colleagues, telling the small crowd that their comments are not ignored, but they don't align with the law.

"I do think that this subdivision that has been presented has been quite exceptional in its efforts to meet the law," Foss said. "Is it going to make everyone happy? No."

Commissioner Ron Stoltz, in a short comment, agreed with his fellow commissioners.

"I plan on staying with the law, and that's what I believe we did, so I'll stand behind it," he said.

Commission chair J.R. Iman pointed out that the commissioners aren't the last stop for the subdivision, saying it has hoops to jump through at the state level before it can break ground.

"We're simply not qualified, nor prepared, to make those quantitative judgments that go into a subdivision of this magnitude," Iman said. "We are not the only decisionmaker. We have to rely on other parts of Montana code and include other agencies that have regulatory authority."

During a sparse public comment period at the end of Monday's hearing, commissioners received mixed reactions.

Bill VanCanagan, the lawyer representing FlatIron's developers, praised the county commissioners, saying their review was "one of the most thorough and comprehensive review of a subdivision application that I've witnessed in recent history."

"I have seen some unfortunate and unnecessary results that have resulted in litigation. But I think I can stand here today and safely say that the United States Constitution is alive and well in Ravalli County."

Laurie Burnham compared FlatIron to a city, saying it will ruin the rural area that Golf Course Road residents moved out there to enjoy.

"I guess my comments are going to be rather fruitless, but it seems a real shame to me that people who moved out to that area, wanting to be in a rural neighborhood, are all of a sudden faced with a town," Burnham said.

Les Rutledge, a planning board member, commended some aspects of the FlatIron application but also told commissioners, "I really think there are issues here that the public out there are paying attention to that do not necessarily rest on firm findings of facts and existing laws."

Reach reporter Whitney Bermes at 363-3300 or