The Columbia Falls City-County planning board Tuesday night voted to approve a new major subdivision east of the Flathead River just outside Columbia Falls, though it added several conditions that could lower the density of the project and mitigate at least some of the impacts to wetlands on the property.
Neighbors roundly criticized the subdivision proposal, raising concerns about wildlife, traffic and their water supply in a 3.5-hour meeting.
Whitefish developer Jim McIntyre, doing business as Prairie Dog Development LLC, is proposing to build 48 single family homes and 30 resort cabins on 55.4 acres of land at 7073 Highway 2 West in a project called “The Benches.”
The homes would be supplied by well water and would have septic systems as would the cabins.
About 10 years ago, a development called Columbia Range was proposed for the same area, but that had almost double the number of homes. However, that project relied on city sewer and water being extended across the river.
The project was approved, but the housing market collapsed and it was never built.
Neighbors lamented that this new planned unit development would bring a host of worries to what is now a largely rural area, rife with wildlife, including a small herd of elk.
“If the subdivision goes in, the elk are gone,” said Rogers Road resident Glenn Wehe.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Jessy Coltrane also said FWP objected to the development, citing a host of concerns on local game herds and the impacts from domestic animals like cats and dogs that come with high-density subdivisions.
Luci Yeats, whose family has owned farmland and woods adjacent to the property for more than 100 years gave an impassioned speech urging the board to not let Columbia Falls be ruined by projects that erode the very quality of life that makes people want to live here to begin with.
“If you like the changes happening currently in downtown Columbia Falls, then I’m sure you’ll have no problem voting for this PUD and major subdivision. But I don’t necessarily want my community to look like every other urban community in the United States. I don’t want people to move here for the natural beauty the area possesses, and make it look like the place they were trying to get away from. I don’t want to be a place that supports a second or third home for someone. I don’t believe we owe anyone a place to live by destroying our rural areas, our wetlands and our wildlife habitat,” she said, in part.
The crowd of about 35 people, gave her a big round of applause.
Outside of wildlife, two other big concerns were water supply and the traffic. The crowd laughed when it was suggested people who lived in the subdivision would be able to exit up an 11-percent grade road to Rogers Road in the winter. They also worried about accidents on Highway 2, noting it’s already difficult to make a left hand turn from River Road onto the Highway. The new development would have another access road about 200 yards east of River Road.
With the water, neighbors noted they’re all on wells and the aquifer is shallow there. One neighbor said that when a farmer put in a pivot, a family member’s well went dry. With summers getting consistently hotter and drier, they’re worried about the impacts of 78 more homes using water for lawns and irrigation on their own wells.
In addition, the current plans don’t meet the 30 percent requirement for open space — developers said they’d adjust some lot lines to make it work, but residents weren’t impressed, noting most of the open space was for utilities, the wetlands that can’t be developed anyway, or septic tank protection.
Planning board members themselves had problems with the plan. Chairman Russ Vukonich had reservations about the transient nature of the people who would visit the cabins.
“It promotes frequent turnover which is not in the character of the neighborhood,” he said.
Other members had concerns about the impacts to wildlife and wetlands. The board added several conditions, including a condition that added a 25-foot buffer from the wetlands — a move, that, in essence, means the developer will have to either reconfigure or eliminate some of the cabins altogether.
But board members also noted the housing plan itself met the zoning requirements of the area, which allows for two to eight units per acre. The water concerns are regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality, not the planning board.
In the end, the board voted unanimously to send the plan to the Columbia Falls City Council, with a total of nearly 40 conditions, including a host of conditions that the developer agreed to write into the covenants designed to mitigate wildlife concerns. The council will take up the project at its Oct. 7 meeting and will ultimately make the decision to approve or deny the project.