Board weighs comments on North Shore Ranch

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The Flathead County Planning Board is expected to vote Wednesday on the controversial North Shore Ranch subdivision proposal.

After two years of debate, meetings and lengthy studies, Wednesday could serve as a make-or-break moment for developers Sean Averill and Keith Simon.

The meeting is a continuation of last week's hearing, when the board listened to the applicant, numerous agencies and the public.

Wednesday's meeting will be board discussion only; public comments will not be taken. The Planning Board chose to postpone its vote to allow the members time to wade through lengthy agency reports and more than 170 written public comments.

The developers plan 290 lots on 364 acres between Montana 82 and the waterfowl production area, with each lot bordering some type of open space.

Half of the 364 acres in the project would be open space. North Shore Ranch is designed to create a rural atmosphere, with more than 14 miles of horse and walking paths. The developers also have pledged about $300,000 to nearby schools.

Planning Board members will have to weigh the numerous reports and comments, plus the applicants' rebuttal testimony. Following is a synopsis of major issues involving North Shore Ranch.

Flathead Land Trust

Executive director Marilyn Wood of Flathead Land Trust spoke at length about what she calls "a conservation vision for the North Shore." Wood has been working in the Flathead for more than 20 years, and she said she has never seen a more positive response from the community when it comes to protecting the north shore in perpetuity.

"Imagine the north shore if it stayed the same as it was today," she told the Planning Board.

Wood spoke of creating a new state park, a trail system from Somers to Bigfork, wildlife viewing platforms, a tribal interpretive site, a protected scenic corridor along Montana 82, wetland restoration projects and limited residential development.

The land trust has been in talks with landowners along the lake, and the idea of thousands of acres of land in conservation easements has attracted some interest, but the land trust would need tens of millions of dollars to accomplish that vision.

At least four major landowners with property in the area the land trust wants to put into conservation easements submitted letters that paint a slightly less enthusiastic view of an untouched stretch of valuable land.

Although supportive of conservation efforts in the Flathead Valley, the landowners stated that their rights to decide what happens with their land take precedence.

"For many of us, our land is our biggest asset," they wrote. "It is our retirement fund. It is our children's college education. It is our grandchildren's inheritance! We cannot and will not give up the value of the land for someone else's vision of what the Flathead should be."

Wood wrote in a letter to the Planning Board that she has been in talks with the developers to discuss the purchase of "some or all of their ownership" of the North Shore Ranch.

Wood asked the Planning Board to give the Flathead Land Trust more time to come up with the money to purchase the land so it is not developed. She would not say how much money the land trust has raised, but said that her group has enough money to "get the ball rolling."

However, efforts by the developers to donate 73 acres bordering the waterfowl production area for a conservation easement have been rebuffed by the land trust, which has left Averill and Simon scratching their heads. They also have offered a fund through the future homeowner's association to help pay for maintenance of the easement.

"We approached the land trust well over two years ago," Simon said at the hearing. "We have an open offer with them. Our word is our bond, and I would like that to go both ways."

Wood, however, said that accepting an easement from a large-scale development is much more complicated than dealing with an individual family.

Wildlife agencies

Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks stressed that the

development of 290 homes near the waterfowl production area would greatly disturb nesting birds and other wildlife.

The agencies were especially concerned with the prospect of a skyrocketing pet population brought on by development. Cats are efficient hunters and can take their toll on birds. The Fish and Wildlife Service stated that federal regulations give them the authority to kill dogs and cats that venture into the production area.

"Only a Guantanamo-type fence could keep cats and dogs off the production area," Henry Oldenburg, former Flathead County commissioner, said during public comment.

Simon and Averill said the subdivision's covenants, rules and regulations strictly enforce pet control.

Comments by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks focused on the development's impact on what the agency calls Tier One and Tier Two species. Tier One species are those in greatest need of conservation such as the common loon, trumpeter swan, black tern and grizzly bear.

"They have a laundry list of species that have no possibility of being on this parcel," said Joe Elliot, a biologist and ecological consultant hired by the applicants.

Many of the identified species are not associated with crop lands, which is what the property has been used for in the past. The applicants have also proposed installing five-acre food plots for the waterfowl, which could help wildlife and increase hunting opportunities.

Hunting activities near the subdivision were another concern.

"Hunters, unless they are Dick Cheney, can look where they are shooting," Elliot said.

Flathead Lakers

The Lakers, a long-standing group that works to protect clean water, healthy ecosystems and a lasting quality of life in the Flathead watershed, also opposed the development.

The Flathead Lakers said the north shore is too special to allow this type of project. Because of issues relating to shallow groundwater, flooding risks, impacts on wildlife and capacity with the Lakeside Sewer District, the organization asked the Planning Board to recommend that North Shore Ranch be denied.

In response to the Lakers' concerns, the applicants hired Kalispell's RLK Hydro Inc. to model the area's hydrology, something Simon said has never been done before in the valley for a subdivision.

According to the company's engineers, the groundwater's connectivity to Flathead Lake is poor, and the system actually moves away from the lake or parallel to it. This conclusion matches a study in 1986 by scientists Jack Stanford and Roger Noble.

The Planning Board will take up the North Shore Ranch issue on Wednesday beginning at 6 p.m. in the Earl Bennett Building in Kalispell. The studies, reports and public comments concerning the subdivision proposal are available to the public at the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office.

Reporter Michael Richeson may be reached at 758-4459 or by e-mail at mricheson@dailyinterlake.com

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