Kalispell Green-Lights Glacier Town Center

By Beacon Staff

Kalispell is set to grow by nearly 500 acres. City Council approved the Glacier Town Center development Tuesday night in a meeting that ran until almost midnight. The members of the Wolford Development Montana team sat with tight grins on their faces after it grew apparent that the project would go through, while critics shook their heads and muttered during many of the council’s votes.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am,” said Chad Wolford, the son of Tennessee developer James “Bucky” Wolford, as the meeting ended. “We’ll be able to move forward with an excellent project for the valley.”

The council voted unanimously to annex 485 acres of land located north of West Reserve Drive, between U.S. Highway 93 and Whitefish Stage Road. The council then voted unanimously to zone the land as Wolford requested, with R-3 (urban single family residential), R-4 (two-family residential), B-1 (neighborhood buffer district), and B-3 (community business).

The council went on to approve the Planned Unit Development (PUD) for Glacier Town Center, and approved preliminary plat for the first phase of the development, 191 acres that will feature a “lifestyle center,” essentially a large outdoor shopping mall. The approved first phase has 37 lots, all of which are commercial, with one set aside for a future community center. Councilman Randy Kenyon was the lone dissenting vote on PUD and phase one plat approvals.

Chad Wolford said he has deals lined up with three major department stores that have signed letters of intent to purchase property. He would not disclose the names of those stores, saying those businesses wished to announce for themselves their arrival in the Flathead. As for the development of a grocery store, Wolford said he was working on that and would assess the need for one in that area in coming years.

If the council approves its decisions on second reading in its next meeting – as it usually does – Wolford said he believes he can break ground on the project by mid-summer, and could have stores open by the fall of 2009 or the spring of 2010 – barring further obstacles.

The fundamental objections to the Glacier Town Center have derived from the developer’s proposal that the western entrances to the development along U.S. 93 consist of a stoplight at Rose Crossing, another stoplight just north of the U.S. 93-West Reserve intersection, and an entrance between those two signals that allows for all turns into and out of the intersection except left turns from the development south toward Kalispell – called a “three-quarter” intersection.

The added stoplights conflict with the intent of the city’s draft transportation plan that the highway between Kalispell and Whitefish remain a fast-moving arterial road. Critics also contend that the imminent construction of the Kalispell bypass will funnel traffic into the U.S. 93-West Reserve intersection – essentially providing an expensive way for traffic to avoid the intersections of downtown Kalispell, only to empty into newly constructed stoplights by the Glacier Town Center.

At a presentation held Monday night, Citizens for a Better Flathead, the primary opposition group to the added stoplights along U.S. 93, brought in a nationally recognized traffic consultant, who suggested that roundabouts might be a good substitute for stoplights, and recommended that the Kalispell bypass probably needs to extend further north than West Reserve.

City council made several minor changes to the road network within the development, but did not directly take on the problem of stoplights. The city allowed Wolford to have the larger store signs that he desired, but maintained that the development should have six connecting streets to the north when the developer wanted four. The city also allowed that the main entrance to Glacier Town Center could be a “three quarter” intersection, where the city planning staff recommended an intersection that allowed only right turns. The council voted 4-3 to allow Wolford to develop on property near the intersection of Rose Crossing and U.S. 93, over the planning board’s recommendation that the land remain vacant in case MDT decided an overpass was appropriate.

But as for the question of stoplights, responsibility now falls on the Montana Department of Transportation for the decision. The state MDT typically waits until a local government has approved the design of a development before studying, in-depth, the traffic in a given area and making its recommendations for intersections. The state MDT has said that it approves of stoplights for entrances to the Wolford development, though it emphasizes that it always tries to work with local governments.

Since the city council did not suggest altering the layout for the Glacier Town Center, and approved preliminary plat for the commercial development along U.S. 93, it is unclear how much study MDT will devote to the project and whether it will change its initial recommendation. Council members also discussed the possibility of roundabouts in place of stoplights.

But when it comes to the Glacier Town Center, traffic concerns are no longer questions of “if.” They have become questions of “how.”