With updated city growth policy, some housing could (eventually) come to CFAC property

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Taken with a drone, this is the view of the former Columbia Falls Aluminum Co, plant. (Photo by Roux Associates)

The Columbia Falls City Council last week approved an updated city growth policy, which reflects the changing nature of the city’s economy and looks for the best areas for future growth.

One of the key changes in the policy centers on the evolving economy in Columbia Falls. The city used to be the industrial hub of the county — with several lumber mills and an aluminum plant. In fact, at one time the city even touted the “industrial hub” designation on wooden signs, according to old photos in the Hungry Horse News.

But since the last update to the growth policy, the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant north of town has all but been obliterated and Weyerhaeuser has torn down the sawmill and plywood plants that were once mainstays of employment.

Today, the city relies more on the service industry and caters more toward the tourist for jobs or people commute to Kalispell or other locales for employment.

The city is quickly becoming a home to coveted real estate for folks who want to recreate here and still be close to town amenities.

Since 2011, during the depth of the Great Recession, the median home price has jumped from $100,000 to $309,500. Even when the real estate market was hot in 2007, the median price was still only $183,000. Since 2011, housing has gone up more than 300 percent.

Housing and planning for future development is one of the key themes of the document. It targets part of the former CFAC property as suitable for suburban residential development once the site is cleaned up. It’s currently a Superfund site, but testing has shown that the bulk of the contamination — fluoride and cyanide — are relegated to old landfills north of where the plant used to be. Outside that zone, pollution is minimal, if it exists at all.

The plan calls for a suburban-agricultural use of the remaining CFAC lands, with the exception of property that still has buildings on it — that remains industrially zoned under the plan.

The plan also targets lands west of town and east of the river for residential housing as well. Building high density housing east of the river is more challenging, however, as sewer and water lines would have to be drilled under the riverbed to accommodate high housing if it were to happen.

The lands east of the river have been targeted for housing before, but the plans fell through when the real estate market tanked about 10 years ago.

Most people the city surveyed see the land west and south of the city as the next place the town will expand, though no immediate developments appear to be in the works.

The growth policy also looks outside the city’s planning jurisdiction.

For example, it calls for the city to continue to push for paving the North Fork Road to Camas Creek. City leaders have long sought to promote the town as the Gateway to Glacier National Park, whether it’s the long way to the coveted Going-to-the-Sun Road or not.

The plan also calls for continued promotion of walking and bike paths in and around the city and a mix of housing to meet the continued demand.

While industrial use has waned over the years, there’s still a lot of property that remains industrial zoned in the city and its planning jurisdiction. Most people — more than 80 percent — support clean industry setting up businesses in Columbia Falls.

The city is required to update the policy every five years. The planning board went over the policy for the past eight months and then council and the board had a joint meeting recently to iron out some of the details and tweak the language.

The full plan is downloadable on the city’s web site at: https://cityofcolumbiafalls.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/August-19-2019-Council-Packet.pdf

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