The corridor of the proposed Highway 93 bypass cuts an imaginary swath through Kalispell’s west side. It’s hard to head west out of town on Foys Lake Road or Sunnyside Drive and not think about the changes those areas will soon undergo, and the changes taking place already.
Last week’s rejection of the proposed Ashley Heights subdivision by the Kalispell City Council raises a dilemma that’s not going away any time soon: How should development go forward on the remaining parcels of land that butt up against the site of the proposed bypass?
The council’s decision specifically rejected annexing the 8.5-acre parcel, between Sunnyside Drive and Bismarck Street, because of the density requested by the property’s owners, Wade and Hubert Turner. The Turners want to build duplexes and single family homes on 41 lots ranging from 6,000 to 6,500 square feet that would sell for anywhere from about $165,000 to $185,000.
The project is tiny compared to other subdivisions blooming all over Kalispell, like the 3,000-lot Starling project, which received the green-light last week from the city planning board.
At last week’s council meeting, the developers of Ashley Heights said they are simply trying to serve the dire need in the Flathead Valley for so-called “affordable” housing.
“People need a place to live and there is a severe shortage of workforce housing in the valley,” said Hubert Turner in a later interview.
Turner’s plans for the subdivision conflict with the planning board, which recommended zoning the land for single-family homes on roughly 9,600 square-foot lots.
At issue is what would be the western border of the Ashley Heights subdivision: the proposed 93 bypass, and the subsequent noise and traffic that will inevitably result.
City Planning Director Tom Jentz explained the planning board’s recommendation, estimating that in 20 years, the 93 bypass will be carrying 20,000 vehicle trips a day, with cars and trucks traveling at speeds up to 70 miles per hour.
“The bypass is going to be built in the coming years,” said Jentz. “Should we encourage development in an area where they are going to be impacted by noise?”
The Montana Department of Transportation plans to build sound walls to buffer the noise from the bypass, Jentz said, but only for homes in place before August of 2005. And those walls aren’t cheap, costing about $1 million per mile.
But Turner and the builder for Ashley Heights, Tom Bowen of Bighorn Development, said Jentz’s logic on zoning density against the bypass is counterintuitive, and that larger homes on larger lots adjacent to a highway will be impossible to sell.
“If you look around at other communities, they don’t build expensive homes next to highways,” Turner said, adding that his proposed project “is appropriate for that area.”
At last week’s council meeting, Bowen made the case for greater density along the bypass, saying $189,000 for a home is a kind of “magic” price range. Above that number, he loses 90 percent of buyers.
“To come up with an affordable house, of course you need density,” Bowen told the committee. “The bypass are hard sales – that’s why we love the duplexes or town homes along the bypass.”
The simple economics of Flathead real estate dictate that once a lot size creeps above 9,000 square feet, Bowen said, it becomes impossible to sell a house below the “magic” price tag of $189,000.
“They’re not your ghetto houses,” he added. “They’re nice houses, they’re just on small lots.”
But Jentz doesn’t see it that way.
Cramming town homes up against a new, noisy highway because it’s some of the only cheap real estate left in Kalispell, Jentz said, could indeed create “overnight ghettoes” where young families have to keep their doors and windows shut to have a conversation and “people are not willing to reinvest in that house.”
“Those were some pretty significant issues in my mind,” Jentz added. “Why would we put people in harm’s way?”
Turner said he is frustrated with the council’s rejection of his proposal, considering that he followed the city’s growth plan to the letter.
Jentz faults Turner for not consulting him about the Ashley Heights proposal before buying the land.
Turner works hard to provide homes the average person can afford, Jentz said, but adds that he won’t allow the high demand for affordable housing to permit such dense housing along the proposed bypass.
“Do we give in because it’s a lousy place to live?” Jentz added. “We have a responsibility to say, ‘No, that’s not a proper place.’”
Mayor Pam Kennedy said she opposes the density Turner wants, adding that the rest of the council voted against annexing the parcel based on the traffic the new subdivision would add to Sunnyside Drive.
Kennedy agrees with Jentz that Turner could sell the homes on larger lots, and that space would allow the homes to be farther from the bypass.
“I think that they could still sell it,” Kennedy said, “and still be able to make some money out of the deal — maybe not as much as they anticipated.”
As for Turner, he said he plans to meet with Jentz to come up with a new plan to bring before the council.
Disagreements between the city and Turner are nothing new. In two weeks, Turner has another 140 acres called “Willow Creek,” also adjacent to the bypass, up for its third consideration.
It has already been rejected twice for being too dense.
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