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In split vote, council moves forward with Railroad Street housing

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | May 29, 2024 5:50 AM


The Columbia Falls City Council last week formally voted to move forward with a housing project at the baseball field on Railroad Street.

The preliminary plan looks to build several townhomes (where the garages share a common wall) with the remainder being parkland to the west of the triangularshaped lot. The vote was not unanimous. Councilors Jenny Lovering, Paula Robinson, Kelly King and Mike Shepard voted in favor of the project, while Mayor Don Barnhart opposed it.

Barnhart in the past has suggested two homes be built there and favored further development of the park. The rest of council, however, favored the project because it will provide at least some affordable, single-family housing units in Columbia Falls.

Habitat for Humanity will build the homes. Under Habitat’s rules, the amount of equity is capped, so a homeowner can’t simply flip the home on the openmarket. Homeowners are also required to help build the homes, in what’s known as “sweat equity.”

The remaining parkland would be open to the public, city manager Susan Nicosia noted.

The project still has a ways to go and will be subject to more public scrutiny, as the city will have to amend its growth policy, change the zoning and it will have to undergo a subdivision review.

In other news: 

• The city learned its health insurance premiums would go up about 9% for employees. The total budgetary impact will be about $95,000. The city pays about 90% of an employee’s health insurance premium, which, for a family, will be $2,283 a month starting July 1. A single employee costs about $827 a month.

• The city’s water tests came back clean again, with no signs of PFAs or what is commonly called “forever chemicals.” The city also tests further for any pollutants that could come from the former Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant like fluoride, cyanide and aluminum. Those came up non-detect as well.

• The city planning commission probably won’t have a meeting for a few months. The next step in complying with Senate Bill 382 requires a housing study, and that could take some time to complete. The city is hoping to get a grant to pay for the study.

• The city will take a closer look at its water and sewer rates in the coming months as well. City manager Susan Nicosia said the city hasn’t raised its plant investment fees (the fees charged for new developments) since 2005.

• Nicosia was named the University of Montana MPA distinguished alumna of the year.

“I’m very humbled,” Nicosia, who will retire at the end of June, said.