Kalispell Goes West

Fueled by demand, population and public investments, residential development is picking up in west Kalispell where it left off before the recession

By Myers Reece
A neighborhood near the U.S. Highway 93 bypass as seen from Lone Pine State Park in Kalispell on June 20. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Between 2002 and 2007, at the height of the building boom, residential developments were cropping up throughout west Kalispell, some breaking ground and others in the planning stages. Then the recession hit. Everything came to a halt.

“We had this eight-year span of nothing, no new lots,” Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz said.

But in the last three years, development has been regaining momentum, although not as rapidly as demand might suggest. High building costs — materials, lack of subcontractors, land prices, impact fees, overall construction expenses — are limiting growth to an extent, Jentz said, but nevertheless houses are emerging all along Three Mile Drive, as well as activity in the Two Mile Drive, Airport Road and Glacier High School areas. New lots, resulting from annexations, are coming onboard at a vigorous clip.

“The energy has really picked up,” Jentz said. “The desire of people to live in the Flathead — you could say there was a several-year hiccup — but the pressure, the demand is still there.”

Viewed along a continuum, as Jentz suggested with his hiccup comment, the new construction and building applications are actually a continuation of west Kalispell’s pre-recession growth after a lengthy delay. Three Mile Drive, and its surrounding corridor to the north and south, was identified and platted for substantial residential development before the economic downturn, launching a number of developments at the time, while others are just now coming to fruition.

“What was approved 10-15 years ago is finally filling up,” Kalispell Senior Planner Jarod Nygren said.

Within a one-month span in May and June, the Kalispell City Council approved two separate developments, located kitty corner from each other on Three Mile, proposing to build a combined 551 housing units across 200 acres. Those came on the heels of the March approval of a 324-unit apartment complex off Two Mile Drive.

To the south in the Airport Road area and north in the vicinity of Glacier High School, ongoing and completed construction is combining with new projects to add housing units throughout the extended western half of Kalispell. Whereas city proper lacks lot availability, the western edge of town offers ample space through annexation.

“The reality is we don’t have any city lots,” Nygren said.

While demand and population growth have set the table, a catalyst encouraging developers to break ground on new subdivisions — in fact, a foremost key to west Kalispell’s general expansion and thus the city’s overall growth — is the West Side Interceptor Project, a large-scale public works project now underway scheduled for completion this fall.

The roughly $10.5 million interceptor project, split into five construction bids, will lay 8.5 new miles of sewer main line on the west side of town from south of Flathead High School to the intersection of U.S. Highway 93 and Reserve Drive. It will provide service for about 4,936 acres throughout west and northwest Kalispell, enough to support more than 17,600 households and 44,195 people.

“The sewer plant has capacity,” Jentz said. “But the lines carrying it don’t. This is adding that capacity over there.”

The 551 units of the Rockwood Ranch and Meadows Edge subdivisions will add to the already bustling Three Mile Drive area, including a cluster of developments with hundreds of homes either completed or under construction that offer a range of pricing: entry-level, middle-tier, higher-end. They include Empire Estates, Spring Creek Estates, Cottonwood Park, Blue Heron, Mountain Vista and Aspen Creek.

Another major factor in the surge is the bypass, which has altered the fundamental artery system of the city and serves as “a game changer for how people view development on the west side,” Jentz said. Farther south is yet another catalyst: the new Rankin Elementary School, due to open this fall. Construction of The Lofts at Ashley and Southside Estates has coincided with the school’s construction.

“The school is a magnet,” Jentz said.

The biggest pre-recession residential proposal was the Starling development, which sought to build 3,000 homes. The economic downturn killed the project, but those 640 acres — a square mile — west of Glacier High are still ripe with development potential, zoned residential and ideally located. Jentz noted that everywhere along the new sewer line stands to benefit.

“There’s a lot of interest all along the West Side Interceptor route,” Jentz said. “You build public infrastructure and the development will follow.”

The growth along Kalispell’s western and northwestern edge is located in the West Valley School District, which has already been doubling in enrollment every decade, according to Superintendent Cal Ketchum. Around a decade ago, the school had fewer than 350 students. It now has 650 and is perpetually expanding.

Ketchum attended the June 4 Kalispell City Council meeting in which Meadows Edge was approved. The combined number of units proposed in that project and Rockwood Ranch is “enough to justify a new school, quite frankly,” Ketchum said. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“You’re looking at within 10 years having 1,500 units, conservatively, and probably 2,000 units,” Ketchum said, acknowledging that many more units that haven’t yet been proposed could also emerge.

“I’d be surprised if (West Valley School is) not over 1,000 kids in five to 10 years,” he added.

A new state law allows a district with 1,000 students to decide whether it wants to become its own high school district. The districts in East Helena and Lockwood near Billings passed bonds earlier this year to build their own high schools. That conversation is looming in West Valley School’s future.

But right now, Ketchum and school officials are focused on the current K-8 school, which added 35,000 square feet three years ago but looks poised to already overflow again in the next handful of years. Whenever that happens, West Valley will face the prospect of floating a bond to construct a new school.

“We basically don’t have space left to build here,” Ketchum said. “When we go out to build, it will have to be at a different site.”

But as more farms are sold off, developments are replacing cropland and land prices are rising, and West Valley finds itself in a difficult position, Ketchum says.

“We can’t afford to go buy 10 acres of land,” he said. “We don’t have any ways of making money. The money we get is from taxes. It would take a whole lot of bake sales to get $50,000 to buy land.”

Ketchum said planning discussions over new developments pay a great deal of attention to services such as fire and police, but municipal governments and developers often overlook the effect of growth on schools. The net result is schools having to fend for themselves to fit into the puzzle, he said.

Ketchum said the developers of the proposed Starling subdivision set aside 10 acres for a West Valley School site. Though that project didn’t get underway, Ketchum would like to see other developers consider such proposals, which might initially hurt the bottom line but will have long-term benefits, he said, because schools are vital to communities and boost property values.

“Where that new development is would be an ideal place for a school,” Ketchum said, referring to Meadows Edge and Rockwood.

Meadows Edge and Rockwood are positioned at the bend where Three Mile Drive joins West Springcreek Road to become Farm to Market Road. Both developments have set aside several acres at that junction for commercial development, potentially for office space, a gas station and convenience store or other options.

Jentz said the Montana Department of Transportation plans to upgrade the Springcreek and Three Mile intersection with a roundabout, stop sign or traffic light to fix issues with the current arrangement, which isn’t ideal for the area’s increasing traffic and population.

While Rockwood, Meadows Edge and other subdivisions emphasize residences — often single-family — geared toward homebuyers, Jentz said developments like the 324-unit apartment complex on Two Mile Drive, a new apartment complex near TeleTech, the Treeline apartments along the bypass west of Glacier High and The Lofts at Ashley are addressing rental shortages and offering affordable alternatives to ownership. Jentz said that type of multi-family housing expansion is critical in Kalispell.

“We just don’t have rental vacancy here,” he said.

Jentz said it’s not a coincidence that the drivers of Kalispell’s west-side growth are public infrastructure projects: the West Side Interceptor Project, Rankin Elementary School and the U.S. Highway 93 bypass.

“Public investment really does spur private investment,” he said.

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