Just south of Flathead Valley Community College, buried under the ground, sits a nondescript piece of Kalispell city equipment with the power to drastically impact how development occurs on the city’s northern edge. It’s the Grandview lift station, which takes sewage from the homes and businesses in north Kalispell and pumps it up the hill toward the intersection of Northridge Drive and U.S. Highway 93, where gravity takes over to carry the waste beneath downtown to the treatment plant south of the city.
New development conjures up images of gleaming storefronts, neatly constructed homes in subdivisions with sod lawns and pristine parks and sidewalks. But none of this building can occur without the ability of the city to accommodate the sewage generated by all this growth. And on Kalispell’s north end, the number of homes and retail businesses planned for development in coming years currently exceeds the capacity of the Grandview lift station to move the anticipated sewage south for treatment.
The city plans to upgrade the waste capacity the Grandview station can handle and improve the downstream sewer mains, which allows Kalispell to accommodate the equivalent of 1,168 homes, according to city engineers’ calculations. The impact of a commercial development on the system, like a store or restaurant, basically depends on how many bathrooms it has.
The increased capacity allows for the first phases of major subdivisions, like Starling, Silverbrook, West View Estates and Bloomstone. The city can also handle imminent commercial projects like the Hilton Homewood Suites, the new Department of Natural Resources and Conservation headquarters and remaining stores and restaurants at Hutton Ranch Plaza and Spring Prairie Center.
But after accounting for these new developments, the leftover capacity of the Grandview station is 175 homes. That capacity can probably handle the sewage requirements of the first phase of the Glacier Towne Center, which will be almost entirely commercial development. But, at present, the city cannot handle the sewage needs of the subsequent development phases of all the projects planned for the north end. Starling alone will eventually build 3,000 homes.
The problem is not necessarily urgent, and if anything, the current housing slowdown provides extra breathing room to deal with it. Many developers are pushing back breaking ground on their projects a year or two in hopes the market improves, so they may not be even thinking about the second, third and fourth building phases for another five to 10 years. There are roughly 2,500 vacant lots in Kalispell now.
But developers and city officials are keenly aware that some type of collaborative solution is necessary before Kalispell, and the state Department of Environmental Quality, must begin rejecting development projects due to the lack of sewer capacity. And while the issue of sewage capacity might not come to a head for years, it’s affecting some developers now.
At its Nov. 17 meeting, Kalispell City Council approved the planned-unit-development (PUD) for 80 acres of Valley Ranch, which includes 85 residential lots, 33 townhouse lots, a senior living facility with 104 units and an apartment condominium lot capable of accommodating up to 160 dwellings.
When it comes to sewage capacity, the Valley Ranch developers are at the front of the end of the line: It’s the first major project approved for which there is no room through the Grandview station. Before approving the PUD, council members amended the agreement removing language that puts the onus on the developer to come up with a way to move sewage to the treatment plant, and instead directed the city Public Works Department to lead the way in bringing the north side developers together to collaborate on a solution.
“It isn’t their fault or our fault that they’re the first ones who can’t get on the system,” Councilman Hank Olson said. “We agreed to help all of those people out there get to Grandview.”
Last week city Public Works Director Jim Hansz and Assistant City Engineer Paul Burnham sent a letter to the six affected developers inviting them to meet in December. The topic will be the public works department’s solution, described in its facilities plan issued in March, to construct a secondary sewer line from north side developments to the treatment plant, circumventing downtown by following the state’s right-of-way easement for the proposed Kalispell-U.S. 93 bypass.
Hansz hopes the developers will work together to fund the new west-side sewer line, which he believes will run almost six miles and cost roughly $5 million.
“They’ve all been advised as to the need for new facilities,” Hansz said. “We are going to try to assemble these guys, who all have a similar interest but are all competitors, and see if we can find a common solution to the problem.”
Hansz hopes the north side developers will note the example of the south side, where Old School Station’s developers fronted the financing for a sewer line to the treatment plant, for which other southern developers will reimburse them as they build out.
“What we need to do now is find out if there is a like-minded individual among this group,” Hansz said.
Developers, for their part, seem to appreciate the city taking the lead in organizing developers to solve the sewer situation. Mark Owens is managing partner of the Owl Corporation, which is planning a 180-acre development between Silverbrook Estates and the Big Mountain golf course. Like other developers, he believes the city has a responsibility to, at least, foster a creative solution after courting all this development.
“I would certainly hope that there is some is some form of pro-rata sharing, equitable way of doing this that makes sense,” Owens said. “The burden should fall squarely on the city fathers’ shoulders to facilitate something that is workable – we’ll see whether they can accomplish that.”
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