Two years after it was first unanimously denied by the Flathead County Planning Board, a controversial subdivision along the north shore of Flathead Lake came one step closer to reality Wednesday night when the board voted 5-1 to approve the project.
The North Shore Ranch subdivision is a proposal to create 290 single-family residential lots on 367 acres. The land borders approximately 1.6 miles of unzoned property on the south side of Montana Highway 82, beginning just east of Somers Road and extending east to a point near the highways intersection with Lower Valley Road.
Board members expressed unanimous concern over the density of the project and its proximity to an adjacent wildlife sanctuary and public hunting area, but weren’t convinced those questions gave them the legal grounds to recommend denial.
“The problem I’ve had is coming up with legally defensible ways to deny it,” board member Gene Dziza said. “I look at all the issues and think they are meeting the present criteria. I don’t like the density but I don’t know if that’s reason enough, or if I have the facts, to deny the project.”
Frank DeKort, a representative from the Flathead Conservation District appointed to the board, voiced the lone dissenting vote, saying he felt the proposal had not significantly changed since the board gave it a thumbs down recommendation two years ago.
“There are no mitigation efforts from applicants to substantially change my mind from what the board voted before,” he said.
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 subdivision first came before the board in 2006, but was denied because of unanswered questions about traffic, sewer, wildlife, the shallow aquifer, water quality, floodplains, and the integrity of homes built on thin soils, among other things. Among the opponents were the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates an adjacent wildlife sanctuary.
The developers, Sean Averill and Keith Simons, pulled the application for revision rather than pushing on immediately to the Flathead County commissioners.
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. 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.
Last week, the board heard five hours of public comment and applicant presentations on the North Shore Ranch subdivision before voting to delay their decision a week in order to wade through hundreds of written and oral comments. Many of those comments echoed the board’s original concerns.
Before voting to send the project on to the county commissioners with a positive recommendation, the board added several conditions to the project, including moving pedestrian and horse trails further from the wildlife sanctuary and a statement acknowledging that PPL owns flood easements on the property. The board also voted, with the agreement of the developers, to add a 150 foot setback from the subdivision’s eastern boundary at the cost of four lots to provide a larger buffer from public hunting lands.
Related: Tug of War Over the North Shore
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