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Residents petition in opposition to losing field at Railroad Street

| March 27, 2024 2:00 AM

Several residents last week  spoke out to the Columbia Falls City Council against a plan to convert a baseball field on Railroad Street to affordable housing, claiming it was the only open space they had in the neighborhood.

Longtime resident James Livingston presented a petition to council opposing the move. The city has been working with the Northwest Montana Land Trust and Habitat for Humanity to build about eight affordable homes on the lot. As designed, the project, if it ever comes to fruition,  would have about a half-acre park as well, just not the large open space that it is today.

But residents who live in the Railroad Street area weren’t happy about the proposal. They noted the city already converted one youth baseball field to another use and they didn’t want to see another one lost as well. The city converted the former baseball field at Hoerner Park across the street from the high school into tennis courts and a city park.

“They’ve already lost one baseball field to the city, they don’t want to lose another one,” Livingston told council.

Resident Mark Lampman, a longtime city public works employee, also noted the city has invested about $20,000 into the park by his estimation, most notably in an irrigation system for the park.

Craig Tucker, speaking on behalf of the Columbia Falls youth baseball association claimed no one from the city had contacted their organization about the Railroad Street park plan. Both he and Livingston also brought up concerns about fees associated with the program moving to the school or the Sapa-Johnsrud Fields, which could cost $2,000 to $3,000 a year.

But the school wouldn’t cost thousands, said Kris Jackola, transportation and maintenance director. In fact, there would be no charge to use the field at the junior high, outside of fencing the dugouts, which the city has already offered to do. Other fields, like the ones between Ruder and junior high would have a nominal fee, noted district clerk Dustin Zuffelato, which could be worked out with the league. It would likely run a few hundred dollars, not thousands. Right now the school district charges $50 per use, but Zuffelato said the district would like negotiate a longer term agreement if the league builds something on the multi-use fields between the two schools.

The city charges the league about $300 a year to use the Railroad Street field.

City manager Susan Nicosia said the Northwest Community Land Trust is looking for grants to move the backstop.

She also noted that Fenholt Park had room for another T-ball field, but doesn’t have enough parking. All of this does not impact the upcoming season anyway, the project still has regulatory hoops to go through, if the city decides to ultimately move forward.

Nicosia also clarified that the homes would be affordable and remain that way as administered by the Land Trust and Habitat. Habitat has a price control structure on its homes that keep them affordable, even if they’re sold by the original buyer.

But baseball aside, residents also brought up concerns about losing the green space, where they walk their dogs and do other activities — Railroad Street Park is the only public open space on the northeast side of the city.

Council, in turn, found itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place on the matter. On one hand, people wanted to preserve 3-acre field, on the other, affordable housing is sorely needed in the city, as teachers and other service industry workers can’t find affordable places to live.

Councilwoman Kelly King said she’s like to see more collaboration between the city and the baseball association.

Councilwoman Paula Robinson said she supported the baseball program and has young family members who play ball and wants to see the baseball folks taken care of.

But she also had concerns about affordable housing. 

“If this (project) were to fail then I personally don’t want to hear anything else about affordable housing in the city. Because it’s not going to happen. So when we have those people coming to us asking why isn’t the city doing something, this is why,” she said.

Council, in the end, took no formal action on the matter, though Mayor Don Barnhart asked Nicosia to continue to work with the baseball association. He too expressed concerns about the fields being the only open space in the area, but also expressed concern for the need for affordable housing.