Unstoppable Starling

By Beacon Staff

The Starling subdivision project is coming to north Kalispell: 3,000 new homes on one square mile over the next 20 to 30 years. It’s the city’s biggest planned development since downtown itself was laid out and sold off in anticipation of the railroad.

At its most recent meeting, Kalispell City Council granted The Aspen Group, the Phoenix-based company developing Starling in partnership with the Grosswiler family, an amendment to the growth policy green-lighting a zoning change so Aspen could have more than the 2,560 units permitted for the land. Not only did the Aspen executives in attendance at the July 16 meeting have their request for increased density granted, but they were also showered with praise. Most developers would kill to be in such good graces with the council. Starling shows them how.

“I believe that we are going to see a development that the city of Kalispell can be proud of,” said Mayor Pam Kennedy.

Councilman Hank Olson echoed the mayor’s endorsement, then gestured to the Aspen executives seated in the front row.

“Look at the amount of staff that’s sitting here,” Olson remarked. “They’re dedicated to being here.”

“They want to have certain areas that they can do a lot of things with; I think we ought to give them that latitude,” he added.

The council’s decision was limited to the growth policy amendment, and didn’t deal with more detailed plans for the subdivision, which will be taken up in subsequent meetings. It’s rare for a developer to receive compliments from council on the magnitude of those lavished upon Aspen, particularly when the project – in this case Starling – is likely to have such a profound effect on Kalispell in coming decades.

But if Starling is the biggest development in the city’s history, it certainly won’t be the last. So the manner in which Aspen went about courting the city planning board, council, and Starling’s future neighbors is instructive when it comes to figuring out which development projects in Kalispell’s future will be similarly successful in navigating the approval process.

While not required, anyone seeking approval for a large development has a much better shot if he or she presents a planned unit development, or P.U.D., to the planning board and council. The P.U.D. provides a blueprint for what the development will look like, and while it doesn’t lock the developer into doing things a certain way, it provides a fuller picture of the end result. In exchange for a favorable P.U.D., the council will often relax or alter some zoning restrictions.

“One problem is that, for the council, we get information in bits and pieces,” Kennedy said in a later interview. “We like P.U.D.s … it holds them to standards and it holds us to standards.”

City Planning Director Tom Jentz said P.U.D.s also reassure property owners adjacent to the proposed development by showing residents what’s about to happen in their neighborhood.

“There’s so much change going on in the Flathead right now, uncertainty is a way of life for people living in neighborhoods,” Jentz said. “If you have better information, there is an increased comfort level.”

As larger development proposals come before council with greater frequency, Jentz and Kennedy say the public is becoming more involved in the process and, depending on the project, more vocal in its opposition. Both praised Aspen for engaging the community surrounding Starling in a lengthy and thorough public comment process.

“Neighbors either support the project or they come unglued,” Jentz said. At the July 16 meeting, many nearby residents spoke in support of Starling while, as Jentz added, there were “precious few protesting.”

But Marc Nevas, who leads an opposition group of six households north of Starling, was among those “precious few” who said Kalispell is rushing through its approval process and the neighbors who spoke in support of Starling hope to sell and develop their land in the future.

“Their minds were made up,” Nevas said of the council. “They’re so in favor that they’re covering some stuff up.” Nevas’ chief concern is that Starling’s traffic impact study was written by the developer with little in the way of public input: “They don’t have real numbers here.”

Kennedy acknowledges some opposition to a project like Starling is inevitable, particularly when it goes up in an area that was once fairly rural, but there are limits to what government can restrict.

“Sometimes we forget about property rights. A developer, when he owns the property, should have the ability to have that project designed to the best interests of the community at large,” she said. “That sometimes is not what neighbors see is in their best interest.”

Also crucial to Starling’s success so far, is that the development will contain many homes in the price range of $165,000, and possibly even less. Ideal new developments, Kennedy said, will have a range of lower, middle and higher income homes.

“Part of affordable housing is not building 700 homes on 40-foot lots, but intermixing low income levels within a development,” Kennedy added. “When we do that we’re not setting ourselves up for an area that could possibly have some problems later on.”

Aspen also plans to set aside five lots for Habitat for Humanity to construct homes for low income families – a move that Kennedy said won big points with the planning board, council and community.

There are other aspects of the Starling proposal that don’t apply to smaller developments, like setting aside land for schools and commercial properties. But the things Aspen has done right thus far reassure city leaders who, charged with guiding the city’s growth, feel as though they’re strapped to the front of a runaway locomotive.

“Development in the Flathead is going crazy and we’re doing a bad job of controlling it,” Olson said. “I wish this could go slowly but how do you do that? How do you tone this down?”

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