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In 5-2 vote, Columbia Falls City Council council denies 180 unit Kapoor subdivision

| April 18, 2023 6:25 AM

The Columbia Falls City Council Monday night voted against a zone change, 5-2, that would have allowed a Florida developer to build an 180-unit subdivision just east of the Flathead River.

The council in a 6-1 vote also downed the Planned Unit Development, which would have allowed for 99 single family attached homes in 3- and 4- unit buildings, 81 apartment units, a private clubhouse, a public park, green space and on-street parking on the 22 acre field.

Councilmembers John Piper, Kelly Hamilton, Paula Robinson, Jenny Lovering and Mayor Don Barnhart voted against zone change, while councilmen Darin Fisher and Mike Shepard voted for it.

Shepard was the lone vote for the planned unit development, which was more symbolic than anything, since without the zone change, the PUD isn’t possible under the current agricultural zoning.

The crowd of about 90 people — most of them opposed to the development — cheered when the vote was finalized.

The vote Monday came after a meeting and public hearing on March 20 that went more than four hours, with almost everyone opposing the the housing development proposed by Rishi Kapoor, CEO of the Coral Gables based Location Ventures, which specializes in luxury homes.

Councilmembers brought up several concerns, notably traffic and safety and the environmentally sensitive area —it’s 500 feet feet from the 770-acre Bad Rock Wildlife Management Area — home to everything from a small elk herd to grizzly bears and a host of other creatures.

The property itself is swampy and rife with wetlands — studies found the groundwater level in some places was just 2 feet under the surface. Those wetlands also drain directly into the Flathead River, a world class fishery.

Mayor Don Barnhart brought up several concerns.

“It’s an environmentally sensitive area over there and I’m a little bit concerned about that. I think it’s a great subdivision … there’s been a lot of work put in … I’m just not really comfortable of one, the fact (of) where it’s at … anywhere else if we could get it hooked up to municipal services I would champion, but that and the problem of access.”

He went on to say he wasn’t happy with the way traffic was set up — the development has two entrances onto Highway 2. With heavy traffic on River Road already being a safety problem and with heavy traffic in the summer and no guarantees of a stoplight with the subdivision, he was worried about accidents.

“I think it would be extremely dangerous … I’ve responded to accidents in that area for over 30 years, so I know what I’m talking about,” he said.

Councilwoman Jenny Lovering echoed the mayor’s concerns about traffic and safety.

Councilman John Piper spoke to housing market conditions, noting he’s seeing more homes now on the market in Columbia Falls and things seem to be settling down since the surge after the pandemic. He said he expected the vacation housing market to decline as well.

“Flooding the market to me, with new housing, is not the answer,” he said.

Kapoor previously told the public that he expected the rental units to serve the “missing middle” with rents about $2 per square foot. But critics noted that meant a modest apartment would be more than $2,400 a month, while the median household income in Columbia Falls is less than $57,000 annually.

In short, residents couldn’t afford to live there.

Piper said the growth policy had already protected the area east of the river. If the city had no say and it was under county jurisdiction, homes would already be there and they’d be on septic systems. If the development was approved, the plan was to extend city sewer and water by drilling under the Flathead River.

But not everyone was against Kapoor’s proposal.

“We have been dealing with the east side for 19 years,” councilman Mike Shepard said, noting that eventually it would get developed.

He said the problem with going west of the city — which some people have called for — is the land isn’t for sale.

“So you’re going to landlock the city, when you become stagnant what happens? You die,” he said.

He claimed that many folks who opposed developments east of the city were emotional, but short on facts.

Councilman Darin Fisher also said development would happen one way or the other— it could be high density, “more attainable” housing or million-dollar homes.

“That’s something I struggle with when looking at this development and other developments that have been proposed in this area. I am Ok with higher density in this area,” he said, noting city services are within a quarter mile of the proposed subdivision.

Fisher also noted the council could condition a traffic light there and city planner Eric Mulcahy said yes, that would be possible.

But in the end, the vote went the against the subdivision and after weeks of rancor, numerous letters to the editor and hours of testimony, the plot of land will remain, at least for the time being, what it has been for decades — a swampy pasture, with a pond and plenty of grass to support some horses.

But Kapoor’s plans don’t end with this parcel. He’s also asking Flathead County for a zone change on 113 acres of farmland just east of the 22-acre parcel.

In that case, the land is under county jurisdiction and he’s seeking a zone change from agricultural to R-1 residential, which would allow homes on 1-acre parcels.

That was supposed to go before the planning board last week, but was postponed at the last minute.