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HAMILTON - The chairman of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee is poised to take over as the county's next planning director, a job for which he feels more than qualified.

Terry Nelson, of Hamilton, was hired on a 3-1 vote of the county commissioners Tuesday. He meets with the county's human resource director Thursday to choose a starting date, probably in two weeks.

And while he doesn't have a formal education in planning, Nelson believes he has plenty of experience that makes him the right fit for the job.

"I've been working with planning for the last 19 years in the valley," he said in an interview Wednesday. "I have a lot of knowledge of how the planning office works from dealing with them that long."

Ravalli County Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said he was torn about the decision, but ultimately decided Nelson was the most qualified candidate.

"I think that Terry is better suited for what the majority of that job requires, which is working with the public and subdivision review and subdivision regulations," Kanenwisher said.

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Nelson is also well aware of the pitfalls of subdivision review. In 2008, he paid $20,000 as part of a settlement with neighbors over a subdivision exemption.

Nelson owned about 15 acres off Airport Road in Stevensville. In 2004, he applied for a subdivision exemption for a family transfer. He was awarded the family transfer, splitting the 15 acres into seven parcels, six to be transferred to family members with one parcel remaining.

But Nelson ended up selling off the parcels.

For several years, before different county commissioners, neighbors complained about Nelson, saying he evaded subdivision review by doing a family transfer. They were concerned with the effects Nelson's sold properties would have on their roads.

The settlement agreement stated that Nelson was within the law in both his application for a family transfer and his subsequent sale of those parcels.

Then-Deputy County Attorney Alex Beal wrote a letter to county commissioners, saying the seven lots had an internal road and appeared indistinguishable from a subdivision.

But Beal continued in the same letter to say the county didn't have a traditional legal claim applicable to Nelson's situation. The only suit commissioners could pursue was one for "unjust enrichment," which would require proof Nelson evaded subdivision regulations and as a result was unjustly enriched by the money he didn't spend complying with subdivision regulations.

Rather than fight a potential lawsuit, Nelson said he decided to settle with his neighbors, giving $20,000 to be used for roads.

"My lawyer told me I would probably win, but it would be cheaper to settle than to go through with (the lawsuit)," Nelson said.

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Kanenwisher said during the commissioners' interview with Nelson, he asked Nelson directly about the settlement.

"The fact is, Ravalli County is very difficult to work with for subdividers," Kanenwisher said. "He tried to go through that process. It was virtually impossible, so he used another process that was within the law that was allowed."

"He worked with the neighbors and he settled it," Kanenwisher added.

Kanenwisher also staunchly rejected the notion that his vote was a political one.

"I won't and haven't made any decision based on political expediency," Kanenwisher said. "I'm aware of the criticism. ... I would never do that for that reason, but I also won't fail to hire the right person for fear of being accused of that."

Nelson said he also doesn't believe his hiring was politically motivated.

"I hope it wasn't a political appointment and I don't believe it is," Nelson said, noting he has worked on over 500 subdivisions, over 1,000 exemptions and over 100 floodplain permits.

"I have lots of qualifications for this job," Nelson said.

Nelson has no degree in planning, but rather in electrical engineering.

"I think the main concern that I see is a lack of a planning degree of some sort," Nelson said. "I have a lot of experience in planning. ... The lack of education that has been talked about, that's simply a lack of a school teaching something rather than practical experience, which I have plenty of."

Nelson has served as chairman of the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee for the last year and a half and is the president for Applebury Survey in Victor. He has worked with the company since 1992, he said.

"From a surveying standpoint, I have been a planning consultant," Nelson said. "I've functioned as a planner in our business many times."

Both Nelson and Kanenwisher said while there is a perception that Nelson will be pro-development in the office, that isn't necessarily true because he will be bound by the law.

"I expect to follow state and county rules and regulations," Nelson said. "Those regulations are not created by the planning office. Our job is to make sure the rules and regulations are followed. As far as pro-development or anti-development, I think that's more for the commissioners and legislators to deal with."

Nelson replaces former planning director John Lavey, who resigned in January. Also interviewed for the position were current interim director Tristan Riddell, former planning director Karen Hughes and Diana Brodie.

Reporter Whitney Bermes can be reached at 363-3300 or at whitney.bermes@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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