The fate of a proposed major subdivision along Montana Highway 82 remained in limbo last week when the Flathead County Planning Board postponed their vote to sort through a deluge of written and verbal public comment. But even as the subdivision moves forward, plans are afoot to preserve the north shore of Flathead Lake, including the development’s proposed location.
More than 60 people attended the meeting to comment on the proposed North Shore Ranch Subdivision, spilling into the hallway where the proceedings could be heard on speakers.
After five hours of presentations and public comment – mostly in opposition to the proposal – the board delayed its decision until its April 2 meeting, giving it a week to review the project and the additional public opinion. Public comment is closed and will not be taken at the April meeting. Planning board member James Heim recused himself from voting on the subdivision because of his position with the Lakeside Water and Sewer District, and through it, the developer.
The North Shore Ranch Subdivision would create 290 single-family residential lots on 367 acres. The land borders approximately 1.6 miles of unzoned property on the south side of the highway, beginning just east of Somers Road and extending east to about half a mile west of the intersection with Lower Valley Road.
The proposal was unanimously recommended for denial by the planning board in 2006 and the developer, Kleinhans Farms Estates LLC, pulled the application for revision rather than pushing on immediately to the Flathead County commissioners. Some of the board’s concerns at that time were the development’s proximity to the Flathead Waterfowl Production Area; impacts on Highway 82 traffic and local schools, high groundwater and runoff issues; and threats to wildlife and Flathead Lake.
“We felt like there were enough questions raised that rather than moving forward we should step back and address all 13 questions from the board and any valid public comment,” developer Sean Averill said. “I think we’ve provided answers to those questions. We’ve gone above and beyond the subdivision regulations and the law and done things no developer has ever done before in this community.”
The new application was submitted last fall with a reduced number of homes – from 375 to 290 – and a 72-acre parcel that Averill said would be set aside for a conservation easement adjacent to the waterfowl area. The proposal includes about 14 miles of horses and pedestrian trails, a clubhouse, athletic fields and an equestrian facility with 40 horse stalls. Lots in the subdivision would be around a half acre, Averill said.
The new proposal is not dramatically different from the 2006 application, but provides more information on disputed points, including a hydrology report that shows the shallow water table under the project site is poorly connected to the Flathead River or Flathead Lake. Likewise, opposition to the project revolves around many of the original grievances, including concerns with the developments density and its ability to coexist with neighboring wildlife and land uses.
But even as the North Shore Ranch takes its second go-around with the planning board, several area conservation groups and state and federal agencies are working together to win over landowners and secure grant money to not only buy out the North Shore’s developers, but also acquire approximately 1,600 acres of private land along the lake.
Flathead Land Trust Director Marilyn Wood said her group had just started meeting with landowners as part of its ongoing River to Lakes Initiative when the development was first proposed. Many of the property owners were interested in the conservation efforts, Wood said, and willing to take less than a developer’s price if their financial needs were still met.
“We aren’t asking them to just donate their property,” Wood said. “We realize that for many of these people their land is their checkbook, so we need to pony up.”
At approximately seven miles, the north shore is one of the largest undeveloped expanses of property on the lake, Wood said, possibly making it eligible for state programs aimed at building new state parks and increasing public access. At last week’s meeting, Gail Bissel from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said her agency was working to secure those grants and funds for the north shore, and was “concerned approval of this subdivision could thwart those efforts.”
The developers have been open to conversations about the property, Wood said, and have made it clear they’d be open to buy-out discussions even if the proposal is approved. But, if construction occurs, Wood fears the whole conservation project would be a wash.
“People support saving this as a whole, because there’s such a large expanse of undeveloped property,” she said. “Once a major development gets a toe hold in this area the rest of the landowners will say, ‘What’s the point?’”
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