Just after 11 p.m. on Sept. 9, the Country Kitchen at the Flathead County Fairgrounds felt like a courtroom.
“When you consider the facts of record, there is only one conclusion you can reach tonight,” attorney Roger Sullivan said, addressing the county planning board as if it were an empaneled jury. “This application is legally insufficient, scientifically inaccurate and we have proven to a fact that this application tonight should be denied.”
The application under consideration by the Flathead County Planning Board was a proposed preliminary plat for the Rolling Acres subdivision, a 114-acre development bordered by Columbia Falls Stage Road and Kingfisher Lane east of Kalispell. After more than three hours of public comment, rebuttal and questioning, the board voted to close public comment and put off the board discussion until the next planning board meeting in October.
The development, proposed by Betty Trueblood and Unique Realty Developer Inc. with technical assistance by TD&H Engineering, would include 77 lots served by shared wells and individual septic systems.
Directly to the north of the proposed development is a 700-acre conservation easement, and a little ways to the south is another 400-acre conservation easement.
Three community members in attendance were members of the Johnston family, who donated the northern easement.
“I understand that I am considered to be a high-risk individual regarding the COVID-19,” Hazel Johnston, 91, said. “But there can be a greater risk in staying home when the protection of something valuable and irreplaceable is at stake.”
All but one of the in-person public comments were in opposition of the development, citing the loss of wildlife habitat and valuable agricultural land with “good Creston topsoil.”
The public comment was organized by the recently founded Fairview Neighborhood Association (FNA), created to “protect and preserve the rural and traditional agricultural landscape, wildlife habitat and natural resources in the Flathead Valley region,” specifically opposing the Rolling Acres development.
The FNA, represented by Sullivan, included a presentation by hydrogeologist Dr. Willis Weight, in addition to individual comments.
Weight presented a model of the soil composition and field drainage of the property, rebutting several points made by Brad Bennett, the hydrogeologist attached to the applicant project.
Bennett walked the board through the fieldwork done at the site, which concluded that the site did not contain shallow ground water and would not pose a problem for the proposed septic systems, findings that were accepted by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Bennett also noted that the shared wells on the property were not anticipated to impact neighboring wells.
County staff reported more than 200 public comments were received prior to the hearing, overwhelmingly against the development. Staff also noted that they had full confidence that the application was complete and acceptable to the department, despite comments to the contrary.
Several agencies submitted comments on the proposed development.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) highlighted the location as part of the wildlife-urban interface.
“We anticipate that the development of this subdivision will result in increased levels of human-wildlife conflicts, as well as a significant loss of wildlife habitat and connectivity along the riparian movement corridor,” biologist Jessy Coltrane wrote.
The proposed project area is winter rangeland for elk and deer, as well as nesting and foraging habitat for migratory waterfowl and upland game birds.
Montana FWP recommended the developers adopt 11 conditions in order to limit conflict with wildlife. Among the recommended conditions is a ban on fruit-producing trees or shrubs unless behind an eight-foot or electric fence and discouragement of fencing individual lots.
The Creston rural fire department submitted comments about safety concerns. The primary concern is the amount of traffic that would “dump” onto Columbia Falls Stage Road, noting, “It is also known that the posted speed limit seems to serve as a suggestion only,” and while stating that the additional vehicles from the subdivision would “create many safety hazards.”
A traffic study included in the proposal determined that the road systems and nearby intersections were adequate for the increased traffic, and the Flathead County Road and Bridge Department did not have any comments on the application.
The subdivision proposal is for a preliminary plat, which means that after the planning board votes on a recommendation, the Flathead County Commission as well as several agencies will have to review and accept the proposal before any work progresses.