Saturday, April 01, 2023

Planning board votes down another high density housing project east of river, but approved a smaller one in city limits

Editor | February 15, 2023 1:00 PM

The Columbia Falls City County Planning Board Tuesday voted against a proposed 180-unit subdivision east of the Flathead River, citing a host of concerns from traffic, wetlands, the high water table and impacts to the wildlife corridor.

It was a marathon meeting — the board’s unanimous vote didn’t come until about 11:50 p.m.

Under the proposed plan, Location Acquisitions, part of Location Ventures out of Coral Gables, Florida, is proposing 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.

The land is currently a 10-acre parcel and a 12-acre parcel, both of which have long been horse pastures. The land is wet and contains a manmade pond and host of wetlands. Borings in a geotechnical report found the water table to be just over 2 feet below the surface.

The development would require a zone change from CSAG-5 and CSAG-10 (Suburban Agricultural) with a 5 and 10 acre minimum lot size to a proposed zoning of CR-4 (Urban Residential) zoning. A planned unit development overlay would allow for just under 8 units an acre.

About 55% of the development would be open space, but critics noted that about half of that was wetlands or a man-made pond that’s on-site.

Location Acquisitions staff spent more than an hour making their case for the subdivision. Company President Rishi Kapoor said he first visited the area while on vacation and was impressed by its natural beauty.

“I want you to lay eyes on me and size us up,” he told the board.

He claimed the project was “first class” and would have an “attainable price point.”

That price point was about $2 a square foot, he said. So a 1,200 square-foot apartment would run about $2,400 a month. He said they would all be long-term rentals, preferably six months or more leases and “tastefully designed.”

Kapoor claimed the development was for folks who already live here. But some folks openly questioned how those rents were even close to being affordable for most residents.

Kapoor also commissioned Patrick Barkey, the University of Montana and Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research to give a short report on the housing market in the Flathead Valley that basically confirmed what many already knew — that housing prices had skyrocketed in the past few years and inventory of lots and homes was well below current demand.

Many folks who opposed this project didn’t really oppose high density development — they just opposed it near the Flathead River.

For example, an application by Ruis Holdings to build 12 residential units off Fourth Avenue West on a half-acre lot behind Whitefish Credit Union received unanimous approval by the planning board in a review that took about an hour.

“I think we can support this,” resident and President of the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association Shirley Folkwein said. “This is where multi-family housing needs to be — on the west side of the river. I think this is a good fit.”

But most folks found the 7030 Highway 2 Residences — the formal name of the proposed North River Road development — untenable. They claimed it would cut off an important wildlife corridor, it would overcrowd the area and it would threaten wetlands, to name just a few concerns.

Planning board member Sam Kavanagh noted it appeared that some of the buildings were situated right on the edge of the wetlands. Just under 5 acres of wetlands fall under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction and any disturbance would have to be permitted by the Corps.

There were also significant concerns about traffic onto Highway 2, as it didn’t appear the project would have a traffic light, even though it was calling for the realignment of River Road to the east, so there would be a contiguous plot of land for a park and parking for a planned 7,500 square foot club house near the river.

The developers said they would continue to provide public access to the river, but members of the public were unimpressed, noting the buildings and associated roads would have a detrimental effect on a local elk herd migrates through the area.

“You’re proposing to destroy the wildlife corridor that brought you here,” planning board member Claudette Byrd-Rinck told Kapoor, alluding to his previous statements on why he was impressed with the area.

Boardmember Patti Singer concurred. As a real estate agent, she noted the rental market was already starting to soften.

“I think we need to slow down a little bit,” she said, later telling Kapoor and his team, that “We’re in God’s Country and people need to respect that.”

When planning board chair Russ Vukonich asked Kapoor if he’d be willing to change the development to accommodate a wildlife corridor, Kapoor was noncommittal.
“We (would) need to get smart on the discussion,” Kapoor said.

It wasn’t clear what that really meant.

Frank Astor, a member of the Location Ventures team, said their "intention was to collaborate," with The Flathead Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization that preserves open spaces in the valley through conservation easements.

But contacted Thursday, executive director Paul Travis clarified that, saying the organization would provide input to the developer, but it wasn’t “collaboration.”

“We are open and willing to give them input along with FWP about how to mitigate the impacts to the wildlife habitat and corridors,” Travis said.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has already brought up significant concerns about the project, saying it would, in fact, threaten wildlife connectivity and would have negative impacts to the 700-acre Bad Rock Wildlife Management Area, which is just to the North.

“This area provides a movement corridor for wildlife, including deer and elk that winter to the north in the Bad Rock Canyon WMA. Numerous studies indicate that development in areas like this fragment habitat and associated human and domestic pet activity further impacts the surrounding area,” FWP said in a letter to the city on the project. “The proposed project area is also heavily used by a resident elk herd. This parcel is part of a continuous movement corridor for elk, which cross Highway 2 at this location to access larger tracts of available habitat. This lot is a critical connection for elk moving north-south along the river corridor and through the remaining bands of open space and forest. The loss of this habitat may significantly alter movement patterns. Cumulatively, higher density development on this parcel and surrounding parcels will displace elk and eventually block this wildlife movement corridor.”

The Columbia Falls City Council has final say on the application. It is scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m. March 20 at the Columbia Falls Junior High.

There will be a public hearing on the project at that time.

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