After two hours of testimony from concerned and frustrated area residents last week, the Flathead County Planning Board voted 5-3 to recommend denial to the county commissioners on a controversial 66-acre subdivision for a rural area near Whitefish.
The Riverpark of Whitefish subdivision plan, brought forth by AVKO LLC., was received a similar vote by the board last year after the board decided the proposed population was too dense and neither the stormwater management plan nor the groundwater monitoring system were adequate.
However, the developer resubmitted the subdivision plan after reducing the number of lots from 22 to 15, creating a “No Build Zone” to minimize the effect on wildlife and the environment, adding more groundwater monitors and a new concept for stormwater management. The revisions earned a favorable report from Flathead County Planning and Zoning officials.
Despite the changes, neighboring property owners strongly opposed the proposed subdivision. Board member Jeff Larson said he recorded 21 different concerns from opponents during the hearing, including changes in the river path, population density, driving safety on the highway and scaring away nesting bald eagles.
The property is located on unzoned land seven miles north of Whitefish on the west side of Highway 93, near the Stillwater River, surrounded by agricultural land.
This concerned several neighbors, who said subdivision tenants might not be accustomed to the reality of animals in the area.
“Are these people going to be told that there is a lot of poop around?” asked Pam Rozell, who owns a neighboring ranch and ministry with her husband.
Jeff Ulsamer, owner of Dog Sled Adventures Montana, said the subdivision would not jibe with the rural feel of the surrounding area.
“Once you change it, once you let people trash it out, you can’t take those houses down,” Ulsamer said.
Larson said the public’s complaints were understandable, but were also technically covered by the building conditions fulfilled by the developer. He said the board needed to consider whether the subdivision passes health, safety and welfare requirements.
Board Chairman Gordon Cross said he felt that the subdivision did not fit with the “seven elements of the public’s vision” detailed in the county growth policy.
Those elements include managing transportation, preserving the rights of private property owners, maintaining the identity of rural communities and protecting the views of the mountains, lakes, forests and wildlife.
“This is one of the most insensitive subdivisions I’ve seen in a long time,” Cross said, citing the elements.
Board member Marie Hickey-AuClaire said she thought the subdivision’s population was still too dense and that she was concerned about the eagle population.
Other board members said they would have liked to vote against the subdivision on principle, but legally saw nothing wrong with it. Marc Pitman said he would have been able to deny the project if the complaining neighbors had taken initiative to protectively zone the area after the first run-in a year ago. But since the land remained unzoned and he could not see a technical flaw in the plan, Pitman said he could not vote for denial.
Board member Mike Mower agreed with Pitman. He warned the opponents that unzoned land will always be subject for dispute or development.
“I think this is the strongest argument I’ve seen since being on the board for neighborhood planning or zoning,” Mower said.
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