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Planning board OK's Ruis Hotel in split vote

| September 14, 2022 5:15 PM

The Columbia Falls City-County planning board Tuesday night approved a plan for a new hotel at the Glacier Inn Motel site on Highway 2 in a 4-2 vote.

Boardmembers Robert Smith and Claudette Byrd-Rinck voted against the plan. Members Patti Singer, Mike Shepard, Kurt Nelson and Clay Lundgren voted in favor of sending the plan onto city council with a positive recommendation.

Neighbors and residents were largely opposed to the 65-unit hotel, claiming it was too tall, would have a negative impact on Marantette Park and was out of character with the neighborhood.

Board chairman Russ Vukonich and boardmember Sam Kavanagh were absent from the meeting.

The hotel, proposed by developer Mick Ruis, would have four stories. He is asking for a 5-foot height deviation from the 45-foot height limit under the CB-2 zoning (general business) to 50 feet total so the building can have differing roof heights. It also will have an elevator, which requires five additional feet at the roof line.

The height of the building and the perception that Ruis projects were routinely given variances struck ire with the public.

“Please stop approving variances and protect our small town character,” one resident told the board.

That same sentiment was brought forth by numerous members of the public.

City attorney Justin Breck disputed the claim that the city was giving more variances than usual, however.

Resident Will Hammerquist had concerns about the impacts to Marantette Park, which is across the street from the site.

“I see it as a degradation of the park,” Hammerquist said. “It’s a really nice little park.”

Others were opposed to the bulk of the building itself.

“It’s a large building in a small footprint,” one resident said. “I just don’t feel it fits in.”

The footprint of the building is 13,209 square feet. The hotel will sit on the western side of the property with the parking on the east side of the property. The back of the hotel will face Second Avenue West. The entrance will be in the northeast and directly onto Highway 2.

There was a short debate about whether it was a hotel at all — it’s marketed as “extended stay” because rooms will have kitchenettes.

But city planner Eric Mulcahy said it was a hotel because the business model included reservations and other amenities associated with a hotel business. How long someone stayed was up to them. Apartments, he noted after the meeting, have different city code and health department requirements and more importantly, aren’t allowed in CB-2.

The city fire department can serve the hotel, it was noted. The department has a 108-foot ladder truck, which is plenty tall enough should a fire occur. The building would also have a sprinkler system. The existing hotel on the site would remain as a hotel as well.

The board did approve one additional condition to the proposal — that a tree buffer be extended to Highway 2 along Second Avenue West. The plan is to preserve mature trees that already exist along Second Avenue and the buffer would extend the line of trees to the north so people sitting in the park at the Veterans Wall weren’t looking at the back of the building.

Resident Clarence Taber suggested the hotel front Highway 2 entirely, with the parking in the back of the building. No action was taken on that suggestion, however.

The meeting was emotional at times.

Boardmember Mike Shepard spoke to the audience after the vote, saying his vote was completely independent.

“I do not get any money from Mick (Ruis) at all,” he said. “I’ve been accused of being on the take.”

The hotel proposal now goes on to the Columbia Falls City Council on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. for final consideration.

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