When the two 325-foot radio towers were built along U.S. 93 South in 1954, they were perched on the southern outskirts of Kalispell, far enough away to avoid conflicts with any residents but close enough to allow KGEZ 600 AM to broadcast on regional airwaves.
But almost immediately, the towers stirred drama. With the city airport only two miles to the north, the sky-high structures violated Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
The long-standing issue is coming to a conclusion as KGEZ prepares to relocate its headquarters to downtown Kalispell later this year and remove the towers. KGEZ owner John Hendricks has worked out a deal with James Hanson to lease a section of Hanson’s 117-acre property in West Valley where the station would relocate the two towers, contingent on a conditional use permit through Flathead County.
Yet as one conflict ends, another has emerged. Neighbors in the rural farmland on the western outskirts have raised opposition to the towers’ arrival.
Linda Newgard, who has lived next door to Hanson’s property since 1997, has filed an appeal with the county claiming the towers would negatively impact the surrounding properties and violate zoning standards. She says she filed the appeal on behalf of roughly 30-40 residents in the area.
“It’s a real shock to us,” Newgard said.
“We moved out here because we wanted to live out in the country. This is a major production.”
The towers would sit 910 feet apart near the intersection of Farm-to-Market Road and Clark Drive. A six-foot tall fence would surround the perimeter, and three lights would flash from each tower: two red lights halfway up each structure and one at the top. The leased site would also include a 20-by-20-foot equipment shelter.
The Flathead County Planning Department has received more than a dozen letters raising concerns about the towers’ constant flashing lights and size. Newgard says the towers would also threaten migratory and non-migratory birds that frequent the area, and that the towers constitute commercial development, which is strictly regulated in the West Valley Neighborhood Plan.
“We obviously do not want lights infiltrating our night skies and into our bedroom windows,” she said. “Also, we realize that there are certain small-scale permitted commercial uses, but the West Valley Neighborhood Plan never intended to allow something on the scale of this proposal.”
Dating back to 1927, KGEZ is the second oldest station in Montana and the oldest in the Flathead Valley. Hendricks bought the station and revived it six years ago after it went off the air in the wake of former owner and radio host John Stokes’ bankruptcy.
Hendricks, a Flathead Valley native, insists he is not trying to disrupt neighbors’ livelihoods or hurt their property values.
“We wouldn’t have filed (the conditional-use permit request) if we thought we would’ve done any harm to anybody,” he said.
He said the radio station has focused on being “kind and respectful” to residents and built a strong reputation in the community.
He said the new location of the radio towers is an ideal place to continue the station’s operations. He said the towers would follow strict federal regulations that prevent any human-health hazards, and that the flashing lights help deter birds and are pointed upward to reduce light pollution on the ground.
“The lights are pointed up, not down, and you don’t see them from the ground and they’re not very bright,” Hendricks said.
Flathead County Planning Director Mark Mussman determined the communication towers are considered acceptable within the West Valley district. In a memo to the Board of Adjustment, Mussman said the zoning regulations don’t differentiate between commercial and non-commercial communication towers. Mussman also noted that the West Valley district allows other uses that could be perceived as commercial, such as gravel extraction, a shooting range and a riding academy.
The Flathead County Board of Adjustment is poised to review both Newgard’s appeal request and Hendricks’ conditional use request at its Aug. 1 meeting.
If the board approves the appeal, the conditional use permit request would be canceled and Hendricks would be forced to find a new location for the towers as KGEZ’s lease is not being renewed at its current site. If the board denies the appeal and approves the conditional use permit, Hendricks can move forward with the relocation of the towers to the West Valley property.