Roadblocks for Glacier Town Center

By Beacon Staff

Like the U.S. Highway 93 bypass and mining north of Glacier Park, the massive shopping and housing development by Tennessee developer James “Bucky” Wolford has long existed in the Flathead only as a proposal, and now appears poised to become a reality.

But the Glacier Town Center, currently under consideration by the Kalispell Planning Board, still has some obstacles to overcome before Wolford Development can break ground.

Chad Wolford, son of Bucky, made his pitch for the project to the planning board Nov. 27. The 485-acre commercial and residential development would go up between U.S. 93 North and Whitefish Stage Road, bordered by West Reserve Drive to the south. Its 191-acre first phase consists of a “lifestyle center,” essentially an outdoor shopping mall located off of U.S. 93.

Public comment was overwhelmingly positive, with the business community turning out to support the project and only two out of the 16 people who spoke raising concerns. Things progressed smoothly through the first three hours of the hearing until planning board president Bryan Schutt pointed out the fundamental problem he felt Kalispell had with the development: The stoplights north of West Reserve that would be required for shoppers to enter and exit Glacier Town Center conflict with plans by city officials to keep U.S. 93 a rural-style, fast moving arterial road that allows rapid travel between Kalispell and Whitefish.

Because access issues to U.S. 93 might significantly change the plans for the Glacier Town Center development, Schutt told the crowd of about 45, he felt the board needed more time before recommending it, putting a vote off until the Dec. 11 meeting.

“For me, Highway 93 is a crucial sticking point,” Schutt said. “It’s tough to know the final size and shape of what I’m approving with this much up in the air.”

Chad Wolford told the planning board that while there were several aspects of the Glacier Town Center proposal upon which he was willing to compromise, the cost of installing interchanges on U.S. 93 that involved ramps instead of stoplights was simply too high.

“That to me is going to be a serious problem to make this deal work,” Wolford said. “I can’t afford to do two junior interchanges.”

The planning board voted unanimously to recommend initial zoning of the 485 acres at the designations requested by Wolford.

Even after Schutt expressed his reservations, planning board member C.M. “Butch” Clark reassured Wolford: “We’re not trying to shut your project down, Chad. You’ve got a workable project.”

Wolford’s development team issued a letter the day of the hearing objecting to many of the changes suggested by the planning department. Kalispell Senior Planner Sean Conrad said the department will answer those objections in a letter at the next hearing, but the crux of the difficulty facing Glacier Town Center concerns stoplights.

The planning board can make recommendations about a given development. But the current impasse over stoplights on U.S. 93 appears to be heading for a confrontation with the Kalispell City Council, which ultimately has final say over whether to annex the property and approve the plans for the development, or PUD. If the council refuses to annex the land and approve the project while its plans include two stoplights on U.S. 93, the Glacier Town Center may suffer delays while its plans are redrawn with entrances to the north and south – not the west. If the council decides that it will allow the stoplights, it could be opening the door to more lights, thus compromising U.S. 93 as a quick route to Whitefish.

Complicating matters is the fact that Kalispell has no authority over U.S. 93 itself, the state department of transportation does.

In two letters to Wolford’s development team, dated Nov. 27 and Nov. 28, the MDT made clear its recommendation for two stoplights on U.S. 93 and a third entrance to the Glacier Town Center – which conflict with the city’s draft transportation plan.

Dwane Kailey, MDT administrator for the Missoula district and author of the Nov. 28 letter, stressed that in such situations, the state always tries to work with local governments, but he couldn’t predict how that would affect the final outcome of the Wolford project.

“Whenever we have disagreements we look for a compromise,” Kailey said. “Where the city and the planning department go from there, I honestly don’t know.”