After nearly five hours of public comment and back-and-forth between the Flathead County Planning Board and other county staff, the board voted Jan. 8 to forward a recommendation of approval for a major land-use permit to allow the expansion of a vacation rental retreat on Lake Five.
More than 40 people — most of whom were Lake Five and West Glacier-area residents — attended the meeting that lasted past 11 p.m. The majority of those who spoke during the public comment window were adamantly opposed to the request and five spoke in favor of the proposal and subject property owner, Dr. Susie Dietz of Anchorage, Alaska.
“It’s enough to make a grown man cry,” said one Lake Five resident who questioned whether the retreat should be considered a resort instead. Another person, who said he spends a great deal of time swimming in Lake Five, said “this place is magic, and you don’t change magic just because you can.”
Despite the opposition, the board voted 4 to 2 to forward the recommendation to the Flathead County commissioner after adding one condition of approval for a total of 14 conditions. The Planning Department has received 26 public comments, 19 of which oppose the project in some capacity.
The Whistle Stop Retreat properties are located at 1449 and 1453 Grizzly Spur and encompass about 23 acres. Dietz is asking for a permit to have a total of seven guest cabins between the two parcels. Guest cabins are defined by the Canyon Area Land Use Regulatory System as, “a small detached dwelling unit that is rented for temporary occupancy much like a motel unit” and states that “clustering is required to maximize the area of contiguous open space.”
In addition to the requested cabins, the applicant intends to have two RV pads, two pavilions, one open-air theater and one single-family dwelling on each lot. Between the two tracts, several structures are already in place, including a single-family dwelling, three guest cabins, a boat house, a shed, a shop building, a guest caboose and a fire tower.
While Dietz is requesting a permit for seven cabins, two of those have already been built in the form of the caboose and the fire tower, but are not yet considered guest cabins. But according to Flathead County records, Dietz violated zoning regulations after building the two structures in the summer of 2019 without a permit to do so.
Two complaints regarding the structures and their commercial-like uses were filed with the county last summer. Site visits were then performed by Flathead County and two state agencies, including the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Dietz eventually was sent two notices in August: a violation letter advising her of the need for a major land-use permit and an email advising her to cease building any new structures or take any rental reservations.
A major land-use permit application was submitted in October, which is considered a step toward coming into compliance. Should the county give the final OK and grant the permit for the guest cabins, matters surrounding this zoning violation would resolve. Because of this, many attending the hearing said granting the permit would reward bad behavior, with one nearby resident stating Dietz exercised “flagrant disregard” for the law and another adding “past behavior is an indicator of future behavior.”
Many claim construction and rentals continued well after letters to halt both activities were sent to Dietz.
“Would you want Mrs. Dietz as your neighbor?” asked one attendee who inherited a piece of property near on Lake Five that has been in her family for more than a century.
CHIEF AMONG concerns is what a larger-scale retreat could mean for the peaceful 145-acre lake near West Glacier. Dietz has advertised the Whistle Stop Retreat as an ideal location for family reunions and welcomes horses, dogs and RVs.
It’s estimated the retreat could accommodate 50 or so people at full capacity, and an additional 50 to 70 vehicles could travel Grizzly Spur road on a daily basis.
Regardless, Dietz has stated multiple times she does not intend to turn her property into a full-blown resort, but rather have nightly rentals in order to supplement her income. She also emphasized her intentions to eventually retire on the property.
“I enjoy sharing the joys of Glacier and the area with tourists and with people,” Dietz said at the meeting. “I do not want a high-density resort. This is a serene peaceful place for me and I intend to make Lake Five better by improving the area that needs improvement.”
Those supporting the project reiterated that Dietz has been “working very hard to improve the property,” citing her work on outdated cabins on her property that had been grandfathered in as they were built in the 1940s. One Whitefish woman who has helped design the cabins added that Dietz “has wanted to maintain the feel and the spirit” of Lake Five.
Bruce Boody, technical representative for Dietz, has been working to bring the property into compliance. He spoke at the meeting about efforts to improve health and safety concerns, assure structures are far enough from the lake per regulations, and said strides have been made toward implementing adequate septic systems.
According to planning staff, the property appears to be in compliance with county regulations. But planning board members discussed at length whether the property is being used for residential or commercial purposes, access issues and whether comments from state agencies were adequately weighed.
For example, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks stated wildlife habitat and water quality could be affected. Planning Board member Dean Sirucek, who has a scientific background, said he believes the area is ripe for bear-human conflicts.
Discussion also swirled around the question of easements along Grizzly Spur. Dietz purchased an easement on her properties, but hers is one of several along the narrow, one-way dirt road and proposals by Dietz — including one to widen the road to two-lanes — have not been well-received.
Conflicts surrounding the easements and Dietz’s activities are the subjects of a lawsuit filed a few months ago by Dietz against more than 12 of her neighbors. Her lawyer was present at the meeting and said details of the pending litigation could not be discussed.