Saturday, January 28, 2023

Opinion: Growing pains, self inflicted

| January 5, 2023 6:55 AM

I’ve been to some contentious planning board and city council meetings in the past few months as Columbia Falls sees and feels the pain of growth.

Most of it, unfortunately, is self-inflicted, as communities pay for the poor planning that was made decades ago.

Take the Tamarack Meadows subdivision on the north end of Meadow Lake Resort. Neighbors have loudly complained that the subdivision is too dense and it may very well be.

It wouldn’t bee too dense, however, if Meadow Lake Drive, the main road that serves not just Tamarack Meadows, but a big chunk of the resort, were built with any forethought.

The road has no virtually no shoulders and no sidewalks and worse yet, no place to put them because the original subdivision came with homes that included driveways that either went straight up the hill or straight down the hill.

They’ve very nice homes.

On a poorly planned street.

How does this happen? One can only guess, but it the not-too-distant past developers would often come to these meetings, pockets turned out, and say they couldn’t afford sidewalks or walking paths.

The city or county, whichever the case may be, would then waive the requirement.

Ten years later you have kids playing in the street and old folks going for walks being run off the road.

The problem is common as dirt in “old” Columbia Falls, which has virtually no sidewalk on most city streets.

But then again, old Columbia Falls isn’t as densely populated as Meadow Lake.

So now we have River Highlands subdivision east of the river before us again, with fewer homes but the same issues.

I’ve read the letters about folks worried about the elk herd, and I am too, but single family subdivisions aren’t any better for elk than apartments. Once people start adding fences and dogs, you can kiss the elk goodbye.

But there are some conditions I’d like to see put on River Highlands, if it does go through, that I think will at least mitigate some of the impacts.

For one, the subdivision needs a fourth city well and it needs to be paid for by the developer. The city recently put in a third well, but that was for existing customers and development west of the river. In the event of a large fire in the summertime, the existing two wells were inadequate. Not only that, but the city water system leaks like a sieve. I can’t imagine it getting any better with another big subdivision tacked onto it and even more projects east of the river in the pipeline.

The developer proposes giving the city five acres near the river for a city park. Under no circumstances should this be turned into a skateboard park (that ill-conceived concept was in the first proposal). The Flathead River is a world-class body of water. Putting a skateboard park anywhere near it would be a travesty. I’m not opposed to skateboard parks. This is just the wrong place. If the skateboarders want a park, put one at Horine or Pinewood Parks.

This project is a great opportunity to create a fund for the Old Red Bridge to convert it to a pedestrian-bike bridge. The bridge is on the National Register of historic places and we need to celebrate our history, rather than ignore it. My most popular photograph of Columbia Falls?

The Red Bridge, by far.

I’m not suggesting the development pay for reconstruction of the bridge, which could cost millions. Government funding usually covers projects like this, but they often come with a local match. This developer funding, and other monies from development east of the river, could create a sizable match. Not only that, but if this development has as many school kids as projected, it would provide a safe way for them (and many of us) to get back and forth to town.

Lastly, River Road needs a walking path from Highway 2 to Columbia Falls Stage Road. If we don’t do it, we’ll end up with a Meadow Lake Drive all over again.

Make no mistake, I still think River Highlands is an ill-conceived subdivision the city will regret.

But unfortunately, I suspect it meets the parameters of existing zoning and the growth policy, and thus, will be approved in one form or another.

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