Respite home proposal defended in meeting

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Portrait of Lori Wiliamson near the Kalispell Region Medical Center complex on Friday morning, April 12.(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Kalispell Planning Board members last week recommended approval of a conditional-use permit for Lori and Terry Williamson to build a respite center near Kalispell Regional Medical Center for families of children undergoing medical treatment.

Three neighboring homeowners voiced objections to the project at the April 9 Planning Board meeting, with one offering a petition he said was signed by two-thirds of the households in the neighboring area. But after adding a condition for sidewalk construction, all but one board member voted to move the project on for City Council consideration.

The house, proposed for a vacant lot at 15 Glacier View Drive, is planned as a day-use nonprofit retreat. Families will be allowed access to the home by invitation only between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

“The hospital can be a scary place for children,” Lori Williamson said at the hearing. “There are a lot of scary sounds, terrible smells, the lights are on all the time. Quite often the mom is lying on a cot next to her child. I envision a place where moms and siblings can have a break from the chaos of the hospital.”

The two-story house will be handicap-accessible, with access ramps and elevators between floors.

Senior Planner Jarod Nygren said the project, which is in a residential zoning district, is being defined as a community center. Were it not for its planned use, he said, the house would be considered a standard single-family residence.

He said the home is expected to generate around 10 vehicle trips a day, no more than the usual single-family house.

Planning Board members expressed concerns about emergency-vehicle access and the lack of sidewalks on Glacier View Drive. Nygren said the Kalispell fire chief didn’t have any concerns.

The Williamsons have offered to install as much sidewalk as needed for the safety of visitors and neighbors. Planning Department Director Tom Jentz said the Williamsons’ receptivity to mitigating the impacts of a proposed facility are unusual.

“This is the reverse of what we normally see in a project,” he said of the couple’s willingness to go beyond city standards.

Planning Department confidence in the project hasn’t allayed some neighbors’ fears, though.

“In terms of safety and access, the road seems inadequate,” nearby homeowner Steve Martinez said. “There is no sidewalk connecting the hospital to this neighborhood or the intersection.”

His wife, Susan Cahill, also spoke about the impact.

“To have this thing in our little cul-de-sac is too much,” Cahill said. “I don’t see how you can control and say who will come in. People will say they can’t walk and will drive over there, and our cul-de-sac is very little.”

Many of the comments were based on claims that Kalispell Regional has broken promises to homeowners in the past and unhappiness with the design and ongoing construction of the Montana Children’s Medical Center.

“We have been systematically ignored by the hospital and the board from the beginning,” Cahill said. “The hospital can’t finish this cancerous growth of an addition so the site remains under noise and dust. Our quiet little neighborhood has been pummeled by the hospital for many years.”

Lori Williamson said she understands the frustrations of the neighbors.

“The neighborhood has seen a huge amount of change, that’s partly why it’s emotional for everyone,” she said in an interview.

Her defense of a planned quiet haven for families comes from her work with Candlelighters NYC, an organization in New York City that provides a space similar to what Williamson wants for Kalispell.

Williamson, who grew up on a farm in Cut Bank, developed her love for helping families in need over 25 years in the human resources department of the Smurfitt-Stone mill in Missoula. She later earned her master’s degree in change management from New York University and recently moved to Kalispell to take care of her mother.

While in New York she was deeply affected while volunteering in support of two families who lost their boys to childhood diseases.

“I saw the pain, and how it helps to just take their minds off what the families are going through for an hour or two and give them some love and support,” she said.

Williamson said she visited the neighbors on and near Glacier View Drive to inform them of her plans and to relay that she and her husband will do what is necessary to alleviate concerns.

“We want a home that will fit in the neighborhood and a home the community wants to embrace,” she said. “We still have work to do. We aren’t breaking ground any time soon, we want to make the perfect house.

“We easily could have just bought the lot, built the home and slid under the radar for a while, but we wanted to do the right thing.”

Kalispell City Council will hold a public hearing and make a decision on the conditional-use permit during its regular meeting May 6.

Reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4438 or hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com.

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