The Columbia Falls City Council voted unanimously last week to approve a new major subdivision east of the Flathead River outside Columbia Falls, but denied a planned-unit development proposal that would have also allowed 30 resort rental cabins on the same property.
Whitefish developer Jim McIntyre, doing business as Prairie Dog Development LLC, was proposing to build 48 single-family homes and 30 resort cabins on 55.4 acres of land at 7073 U.S. 2 West in a project called “The Benches.”
After hearing more than a dozen citizens speak in strong opposition to the development, the council took issue with several items and voted to deny the commercial aspect of the proposal in a meeting that lasted nearly four hours.
Among the items that concerned those who spoke against the development was the proposed 25-foot setback between the proposed rental cabins and the wetlands area of the property. Courtney Stone, who proposed a setback of 100 feet or more, called the proposed 25-foot setback nothing more than “lip service,” while Shirley Rogers referred to the setback as a “shoot from the hip” number.
Luci Yeats warned the council that any decision made about the property would forever shape the future of development on the east side of the river.
“This a keystone property. The decision made on this property will set a precedent for the rest of the future development along Highway 2,” Yeats said. “Now is the time to plan. What do we want the gateway to Glacier Park to look like?”
Other concerns included a farmer who was worried about how the two planned wells for the development would affect the water table in the area and numerous concerns over the impact on local wildlife.
“The subdivision report states that the property is currently vacant. I disagree. This property is teeming with life, just not the type of life the developers are prone to notice,” Rogers told the council. “We need to either protect our natural heritage and wildlands or we will lose them forever. Once they are gone, we can never get them back.”
Several council members took issue with terms of the planned-unit development, including the inclusion of the 30 rental cabins in an area designated for housing.
“You can call it whatever you want. In my mind, this is a planned commercial enterprise in a residential area,” council member Doug Karper said.
Mayor Don Barnhart was concerned with the impact of 48 septic systems, saying “if we allow these septic systems, we are going to regret it in the end.”
While the council voted unanimously to deny the planned-unit development request, it also voted unanimously to approve the preliminary plat for the 48 single-family homes, with a list of 29 conditions that must be met by the developer before the project can be completed, including stipulations that the water and sewer systems for the project must be reviewed and approved by the Flathead City-County Health Department and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and that the developer must accept the recommendations of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
While McIntyre admits the denial of the PUD might change his plans for the property, he said he is still looking forward to helping provide more housing for the area.
“I haven’t decided exactly what I want to do with it now,” he told the Hungry Horse News. “I will need to meet with the engineers and planners and come up with alternatives. I wasn’t surprised with the council’s decision. ... It was a contentious meeting, but I believe the city council made the correct decision. We want to build a subdivision for people who live and work in the Flathead Valley. These aren’t supposed to be second or third homes, they are for people who want to live and raise their families here.”