C. Falls Council opens door for SmartLam expansion

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Over the past week Columbia Falls has cranked up the debate: Can the city cater to industry and still tout itself as the Gateway to Glacier National Park?

The city is willing to give it a shot.

In a 6-0 vote Monday evening, the City Council voted to approve a zone change from light industrial to heavy industrial for 26 acres at the north end of town.

The site is being developed by BID Group Properties of Vanderhoof, British Columbia, Canada and paves the way for expansion of SmartLam, a company that makes super-strong wood panels that are used in oil-rig pads and building construction. The SmartLam expansion would result in upwards of 50 high-paying jobs.

The council vote comes on the heels of a positive recommendation from the Planning Board last week.

But the debate about the site was considerable and lasted for hours. Homeowners, particularly those on the west side of the property, opposed the zone change, citing everything from noise and possible pollution impacts to endangered species and wetlands. They also worried about their property values plummeting.

Neighbor Melissa Sladek questioned Monday whether the zone change was necessary for SmartLam to actually operate. It currently has a plant in a light industrial area behind Super 1 Foods.

She claimed the city would suffer from image problems.

“Do you want people to come up Nucleus Avenue and stay?” she said. “I feel this is not a zone change, it’s the future of Columbia Falls.”

But the site has long been an industrial facility. For decades it was a sawmill and then a bark plant, which for years blew dust onto neighboring homes. It’s only in recent years that the bark plant has been relatively idle and the site has been quiet.

About 30 acres of the site already are zoned heavy industrial.  

Casey Malmquist, the president and general manager of SmartLam, said the company is trying to do things right. He noted the plant will not just employ 50 people, it will also indirectly employ 250 more. The plant uses wood from neighboring forests. The slow-growing Douglas fir and western larch that grow here are ideal for the panels, which are pressed together using a household glue.

“Our goal is to produce a construction material that replaces concrete and steel,” he said. “We’re trying to make this place look a heck of a lot better than it does now. It will be a nice, clean facility. We want to work with the community on something that’s positive for Columbia Falls.”

Many of the neighbors’ concerns, such as buffer zones, wetlands and other issues, will be mitigated as the developer submits a subdivision plan, city contract planner Eric Mulcahy said.

Mayor Don Barnhart abstained from voting on the measure because his excavation business is located in the industrial park. Councilwoman Jenny Lovering was absent.

Last week, Planning Board member Lee Schlesinger argued that creating a city as a gateway to Glacier isn’t compatible with heavy industrial use.

“As a general rule we shouldn’t be voting for more heavy industrial,” he said.

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