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Neighbors appeal Swiss Apartment variance to Supreme Court

| November 23, 2022 1:05 PM


Hungry Horse News

The neighbors of a former apartment complex that burned down have appealed a district court ruling that allowed the owner to rebuild.

Earlier this year, Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison ruled the Chad Ross, the owner Swiss Apartments on Fourth Avenue West, could rebuild nine apartments that were destroyed in a fire in August of 2020.

Neighbors Inge and Mark Cahill, Kerin Gayner, William and Nanette Reed and Irving Erickson challenged the city board of adjustment decision that allowed Ross to rebuild.

A few months after the fire, Ross came to the city with a plan to rebuild, with a new configuration that would have three new buildings over the roughly half-acre lot. That plan included a four-plex, a triplex and duplex. The duplex and triplex would have parking toward the Cahills’ home.

The Cahills and others argued that the apartments should not be rebuilt because they were a nonconforming, though legal, use.

But Allison ruled otherwise, finding the city’s issuance of a variance that would allow the buildings to be rebuilt, albeit with a different footprint, was appropriate.

“Granting the variance serves the public interest in providing affordable housing for young families and members of the workforce living in Columbia Falls,” Allison opined.

Neighbors appealed to the Montana Supreme Court earlier this year.

They claim the project has no guarantees that it will be workforce housing, or will be affordable, for that matter, as Ross said they would be.

“The board did not condition approval of the variance on providing affordable or workforce housing, nor did it require (Ross) record a deed restriction on the property. Such a blind willingness to believe a developer’s promise (especially in the midst of rising construction prices and skyrocketing demand to live in the Flathead Valley) not only sets a dangerous precedent legally, it also does a great disservice to the citizens who actually need affordable housing in Columbia Falls.

“If the district court is affirmed in its reasoning, developers will have projects approved with the mere promise to build affordable housing, when in reality, very few affordable units will actually materialize. The district court fails to address this argument in its order, and abused its discretion by adopting the board’s reasoning in this regard without meaningfully addressing the factual basis for such reasoning,” the neighbors argue in their opening brief to the Supreme Court.

The Swiss Apartments were built in 1969 on a lot that was unzoned at the time.

They’re adjacent to an existing apartment complex.

The 2020 fire consumed most of the units.

The court has yet to take any action on the suit, which likely won’t be considered until next year.

The Cahills are also suing the city in a separate matter, claiming the Kreck Riverside Park the city owns adjacent to their property is a nuisance and should be closed.

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