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Mayor wants Columbia Falls residents to speak up at hearing

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | March 15, 2023 2:00 AM

Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart said he hoped that “citizens of Columbia Falls” attend an upcoming public hearing on a proposed subdivision east of the Flathead River next week.

Barnhart made the comments during last week’s city council meeting, where he seems poised to vote in favor of what developers claim is a $100 million project.

During the meeting Barnhart also asked city attorney Justin Breck what testimony at a hearing should be most taken into consideration. Breck told him the greatest weight should be from expert testimony.

As developers have brought forth proposals for the east side of the river, less than a mile from the city boundaries, residents have brought up a host of concerns, from wildlife, to traffic to the future of the river itself.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has said that high density development could cut off elk and other wildlife migration routes and could impact wetlands if setbacks aren’t adhered to.

The Columbia Falls City-County Planning Board has since rejected three different proposals in the past six months — two by developer James Barnett and another by developer Rishi Kapoor of Location Acquisitions, also known as Location Ventures, out of Coral Gables, Florida.

Kapoor is proposing 180 unit rental complex on 22 acres just east of the Flathead River Bridge on what is now farmland and wetlands.

That project calls for 99 single family attached homes in 3-and 4- unit buildings and 81 apartment units along Highway 2.

Kapoor told the planning board he sees the apartments and townhomes as being “attainable,” renting out at $2 a square foot, or about $2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Barnhart also publicly endorsed a column by Keegan Siebenaler. Siebenaler is the Affordable Home Ownership Project Coordinator for the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust.

The column railed against the planning process and the way public input is received.

“I think the entire article is very good,” Barnhart said.

Meanwhile, a website called FlatheadForSensible Growth, put together by Strategies 360, the public relations firm hired by Kapoor, showcases a discussion by local bankers from Glacier Bank and Freedom Bank as well as Carla Fisher, co-owner of Backslope Brewing talking about the housing shortage in the valley.

Fisher co-owns the brewery in Columbia Falls with her husband, Darin. Darin Fisher is a Columbia Falls City Councilman.

The woman doing the interview is Marissa Getts, a Location Ventures employee. Another person interviewed is Jeannie DeCarlo, the real estate agent selling the 22 acres — at least that’s what the big sign on the property says.

While the video talks about the housing shortage, it makes no mention of the impact of investor housing in the city, where outside investors have bought up properties and homes and raised rents or simply evicted people altogether as they convert the home to vacation or higher end rentals.

Kapoor is also eyeing another 112-acre subdivision just east of the 22-acre plot.

That plot is located just outside the city’s planning jurisdiction and is in the county. Kapoor is asking the zoning be changed from agricultural to R-1 residential, which allows up to one house per acre.

The matter will soon come to a head. The city council is set to take up the rental unit subdivision on March 20 at 7 p.m. at the Columbia Falls Junior High.

The Flathead County Planning Board is scheduled to take up the 112-acre zone change petition at its April 12 meeting at 6 p.m.

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