Saturday, April 01, 2023

Planning board rejects River Highlands, again

Editor | January 11, 2023 7:20 AM

For the second time in five months, the Columbia Falls City County Planning Board Tuesday night voted down a request for the massive River Highlands subdivision just east of the Flathead River adjacent to River Road.

The vote against the proposal was unanimous with member Patti Singer abstaining. Member Steve Duffy was absent from the meeting. At least 150 people turned out in opposition.

Back in August, developer James Barnett proposed rental 455 units on 49.1 acres just east of the U.S. 2 bridge over the Flathead River. The board rejected the concept. 

Barnett and his consultants then trimmed down the proposal and brought it back for second consideration before the board. This time, the proposal called for building 83 single family homes, 98 townhomes and 162 apartments — 343 units, all told.

But Phase I focused primarily on apartments, 126 of them in seven buildings. Planning board members and residents wondered aloud if developers would build out the whole subdivision once the apartments went up.

Not one member of the public, aside from the developer’s representative, spoke in favor of the project. In about two hours of testimony, person after person brought up concerns, including impacts to wildlife and the rural nature of the neighborhood, and strains on city services. Worries about traffic and safety also emerged as the primary concerns.

Many of the speakers said they weren’t against growth and realized the city would expand, but deemed the location the wrong spot for a high density development.

“It’s a giant debacle we’ll be stuck with forever,” resident Mark Reiten said. “…It doesn’t fit the personality of Columbia Falls.”

“We want to live in the country,” said longtime resident Clarence Taber. “Don’t bring the city to us.”

Neighbor Luci Yeats said she took a broader view of the river corridor. Looking at it from Google Earth maps, there were no other places where apartment buildings were close to the river, she said.

A study conducted by the developer claimed that 90% of traffic would go north, even though the development has a south entrance onto River Road. Neighbors said the assumption that traffic would go north was false. They lived in the area and to get to Kalispell, they drove down Columbia Falls Stage Road.

Columbia Falls Stage Road has no traffic lights and is a 45 mile per hour zone, but neighbors said it was the rare day when a motorist drove the speed limit.

At full build out the development would add about 1,100 more people to the city, critics estimated — an increase in population of just under 17%. That spike brought up concerns about strains on city services. 

Dr. Evon Heaser, who owns a dental office on Nucleus Avenue, claimed the city hadn’t even plowed the street along her property.

“We (the city) can’t take care of roads five days after a snowfall,” she said.

But the municipality is upgrading its sewage treatment plant to add capacity and it recently drilled a third well, which officials say can meet the needs of the development. If approved, developers planned on drilling under the river to install water and sewer lines. They also said they were open to hanging them from the bridge.

Board member Sam Kavanagh asked city staff for hard numbers on the sewage plant’s capacity, even with the upgrade, but that information wasn’t immediately available. The city is already looking at adding about 240 more homes to its system from two separate subdivisions in the Meadow Lake area.

Developer spokesperson and engineer Mike Brodie of the WGM Group said that their projections indicated that water pressure would be too high and they would have to ramp it down before it went into the development.

Brodie also presented a different view of the project, claiming it provided the “missing middle housing” for working families.

He said there were no plans for short-term vacation rentals.

“The goal is to produce single-family residences at less than anything on the market,” Brodie said.

He said that, as designed, the project would move River Road to the east and install a traffic light at the intersection with U.S. 2 with the approval of the Montana Department of Transportation. He also noted that the project provided for an undeveloped buffer along the Flathead River ranging from 125 feet to more than 200 feet.

A late letter from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recommended a buffer of 300 feet from the river.

City planner Eric Mulcahy suggested a condition that ensured the traffic light at U.S. 2 and the proposed realignment of River Road be completed prior to construction of the subdivision. If the state nixed the traffic light, the project would halt. 

Ultimately, the board rejected the project outright.

At first, members discussed tabling the project until city staff could provide more information on municipal utilities capacity and the developer could perform a better traffic study. That vote ended in a tie and the motion failed.

They then simply voted on the project itself, with a negative recommendation to the city council, saying the density of the project was simply too great and the growth policy never envisioned a development of this scope.

The application now is scheduled to go before city council at a special meeting at 7 p.m., Jan. 30 at the junior high school for consideration.

Council has the final say in the application and several members of council were at the hearing to listen in to the discussion.

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