A local nonprofit group has filed a lawsuit against Flathead County Commissioners over the final phases of a subdivision that could add more than 1,000 new homes to the Lakeside community, doubling the number of homes in the small town. Commissioners say the process was open and diligent, but those opposed to the subdivision claim regulations and the public were ignored.
Flathead Lake Protection Association filed the lawsuit in District Court on Dec. 6, exactly one month after the commissioners voted 2-1 to pass phases 5 through 9 of the Eagle’s Crest Subdivision. The group claims commissioners violated subdivision regulations, master plan guidelines, environmental protections and the public’s right to participate when they approved the proposal.
When the first phase of the Eagle’s Crest subdivision was approved four years ago, there was little opposition and it seemed the subdivision’s footprint would be fairly small. Located on the hills south of Lakeside and west of U.S. 93 on land previously owned by Plum Creek Timber, the first phase of the gated community proposed 15 lots on 172 acres. Phases 2, 3, and 4 followed, adding 185 lots on 774 acres and a private airfield.
Then, in February, the Flathead County Planning Office received an application for the development’s final five phases: an additional 821 residential lots on 1,369 acres together with about 70 commercial lots and an 18-hole golf course.
With all the phases combined, Eagle’s Crest, which is expected to build out over 30 to 40 years, could add 1,025 residential lots to the Lakeside area – 69 more lots than were recorded in all of Lakeside in the 2000 census.
And it could grow larger. The planning office has already received several applications from Eagle’s Crest lot owners requesting resubdivision.
It’s easy to see why the land would be desirable; the location provides views of Flathead Lake, the valley and the Swan and Mission Mountain ranges. But, FLPA and other agencies say the land’s slope, soil and location make it less than ideal.
“They’ve agreed to put a city the size of Polson on steep slopes and the worst soils on earth,” Bruce Young, a Lakeside resident and member of the FLPA, said. “The impact on the community, traffic, wildlife, the lake; it’ll all be huge.”
Young can rattle off a long list of problems he sees with Eagle’s Crest: effects on traffic and wildlife, runoff and sediment impacting lower residences and the lake, fire hazards, strain on the Lakeside sewer system, and division of the town’s commercial districts. Most of the concerns tie back to density: “Bottom line is something that big doesn’t belong there,” he said.
In its lawsuit FLPA contends the county failed to comply with subdivision regulations and the county’s master plan by accepting incomplete or inaccurate information, including shoddy soil tests. They argue that lack of information also violated the public process, making it difficult for citizens to understand the effects of the proposal and stay involved.
According to Kate McMahon, a planner hired by FLPA to review the subdivision proposal, a flaw in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Web site produced two soil tests for the Eagle’s Crest site – one, submitted by the developer, for a property on the eastside of Flathead Lake, and another correct sample. “It would’ve been an easy mistake to make,” she said. “I don’t think it was intentional – there’s a flaw in the system – but it has an important impact on the building you do on that land.”
The correct sample shows the poorest ranking of soil quality, which according to the 1987 Master Plan, is limited for development. The Master Plan also suggests limiting development to a maximum density of one unit per 20 acres in big-game winter range. According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Eagle’s Crest includes winter range for elk, mule deer and whitetail deer.
Eric Giles, the county planner who worked on the Eagle’s Crest proposal, said the Master Plan is an important guide, but isn’t regulatory. And because the Eagle’s Crest site is unzoned, questions of density become a back-and-forth pull between the landowner and planning staff.
“Density becomes debatable when land is unzoned,” Giles said. “It creates a difficult situation for the public and for the developer, because neither one has any specific guidelines for what can happen with that land.”
The planning board and planning staff don’t support the subdivision as approved by commissioners.
When the planning board voted to recommend the proposal in September, they did so under two conditions: the addition of a third road access and the prohibition of guest homes. Both conditions were meant to mitigate concerns of fire on the steep slopes and the impact on traffic – at build-out an additional 10,000 trips onto U.S. Highway 93. Commissioners removed both conditions before they approved the subdivision.
Commissioners stand by the proposal though, commending the developer for working with the county and planning staff to re-work and improve the proposal. “One of my frustrations with the proposal was the density of it; it was a lot for people to wrap their minds around,” Commissioner Gary Hall said. “But, it’s not going to happen all at once, and honestly I don’t think it’ll ever build to capacity. In the end, I felt they dealt with our concerns and put forth a solid proposal.”
Commissioner Joe Brenneman, the sole dissenting vote on Eagle’s Crest, said he felt too many of the findings from the planning board were negative to support the subdivision. But Brenneman agreed with his fellow commissioners that procedures met public comment requirements and that the final decision was within the law.
“I may have disagreed with the vote, but I think we did what we needed to do to ensure public comment and follow regulations,” Brenneman said.
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