In 2019, Kalispell’s planning and building department had a strong year for residential and multi-family permits, establishing what seemed like a relatively high bar at the time.
Then came 2020.
“We pretty much doubled multi-family and residential this year,” Kalispell Development Services Department Director Jarod Nygren said on Dec. 31. “Unless things change, we’ll stay on pace with this year into the next year. COVID didn’t affect growth in the valley. It actually sped it up.”
In the past year, the department issued building permits for residential 312 units, which includes single-family homes, duplexes and townhomes. The department also issued permits for 156 multi-family units, which are apartments. The 2019 totals were 160 residential and 84 multi-family.
“I suspect in 2021 we’ll see more than 156 (multi-family units),” Nygren said.
The activity was more than the department was anticipating, in part driven by newcomers. But a lot of the new permits were simply projects that have been planned for years and are now coming to fruition, an accumulating response to the issues of low housing supply and high demand that have been prevalent in Kalispell for years.
“Growth is part of it, but it’s also pent-up demand — we had 0% vacancy before 2020,” Nygren said. “The reality is that we could have built a lot more housing units just to keep up with the demand without all the new people moving here.”
Since at least 2018, the planning department has known that about 1,000 new multi-family units altogether would be coming over a period of years. The 2020 trend of more units reaching the permitting phase is expected to continue in 2021, which means a lot of construction occurring on new apartments throughout the city, especially along Two Mile Drive and in north Kalispell.
“We planned for it all and knew it was coming in ’18, ’19, but it really came this year,” Nygren said.
Using planners’ baseline average of 2.5 people per unit, the combined 468 single-family and multi-family units permitted last year equates to housing for roughly 1,200 people. More available housing can help alleviate growing rent costs.
“It certainly helps the supply, which helps keep the rental market in control,” Nygren said. “When you’re hovering around 0% vacancy, the rental rates can continue to go up. Building new units also allows people to move around and opens up other units that might be older and maybe can be more affordable.”
Commercial was also a little stronger in 2020 than the planning department expected, led mostly by office space and some retail. The areas behind Costco, on both the east and west sides of the bypass, continue to build out with professional office spaces and, to a lesser extent, retail.
Residential and commercial combined, Kalispell’s building department in 2020 issued $125.7 million in permits, which are indicators of forthcoming construction.
“Once they’re permitted, they break ground quickly,” Nygren said.
The long-awaited Kalispell Parkline Trail is going to bid this winter and will not only finally break ground in late spring or early summer, but will be completed in calendar year 2021, Nygren said, calling it straightforward “single-season construction.”
“We’ve been talking about it long enough that people are wondering if it will ever happen, but it will be finished by this time next year,” Nygren said in late December.
The trail will replace the railroad tracks through the heart of town and open up development opportunities along the corridor, with ample interest already pouring in. Nygren said considerable demolition and work through the federal Brownsfields program, which facilitates the assessment, cleanup and reuse of contaminated properties, was completed over the last year.
“Those sites are now open for redevelopment,” Nygren said. “Hopefully we’ll see those take off this next year. There are a lot of developers with a lot of different ideas.”
Before even breaking ground, the project has attracted development, including SunRift Beer Company setting up in its location off Main Street specifically to be situated along the trail. Other projects include the transformation of the former CHS Country Store on U.S. Highway 2 into office spaces and the expansion of 4th & Zuri.
Trail features such as a splash pad will be driven by private grassroots efforts, similar to the city’s dog park and the bouldering feature at Lawrence Park.
Up the highway, Whitefish experienced a similarly busy year in residential permits and expects yet another robust construction year in 2021, led by both multi-family and single-family units.
“It was just a banner year for housing, and I definitely don’t see things slowing down from a building perspective,” Whitefish Planning and Building Director Dave Taylor said. “There’s a ton of people moving in and building.”
Unlike Kalispell, Whitefish has a limited supply of large land tracts for major subdivisions, not to mention high-priced land, so single-family residence activity is predominantly driven by individual property owners building their own custom homes rather than developers constructing spec houses on multi-lot layouts.
“Most of it is infill projects, which is what our growth policy called for,” Taylor said.
Whitefish permitted 91 single-family residences in 2020, which Taylor called a “healthy number,” even if it’s slightly less than 2019, when 95 permits were issued. But combining that figure with other forms of housing, such as townhomes, duplexes and apartments, the total number of permitted dwelling units last year was 296.
“That’s the most dwelling units we’ve seen in a decade,” Taylor said.
One single-family residence development bucking the trend is Trailview, where developers are building a community of 58 homes along Monegan and Voerman roads aimed at providing more affordable but high-quality workforce housing.
In lieu of widespread single-family subdivisions, developers are staying busy with apartment, townhome and multi-use projects, including downtown mixed-use buildings with ground-level retail and upstairs condos. One development that continues to move forward at a sustained pace is the Alta Views townhome community near North Valley Hospital, for which 32 building permits were issued in December alone.
The city has been experiencing a transformation in recent years, both commercially and residentially, a trend that held up in 2020 and is expected to continue in 2021.
“It was such a busy year,” Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia said. “During COVID, building and planning never slowed down. If anything, it accelerated.”
Nicosia said only about 100 empty lots remain within city limits, predominantly residential.
“We’ve definitely been filling out in the city,” Nicosia said.
While the changes in Columbia Falls have elevated property values and prices for homebuyers, a rapidly growing inventory of apartments has aimed to provide lower-cost workforce housing, led by The Highline Apartments, an expansive multi-family project on Bills Lane that has completed 180 units to date.
“Highline is always full,” Nicosia said, adding that multi-family in general “has been filling out pretty nicely.”
“It definitely helps the housing market,” she said.
Similar to Whitefish, Columbia Falls is welcoming more mixed-use projects into its downtown corridor. One in the works is a multi-phase project developed by Mick Ruis on Nucleus Avenue and Fifth Street. The first phase, currently underway, involves demolishing a building on the north end of the property to make room for a new three-story structure with retail on the ground floor and 48 residential units.
The second phase of Ruis’ project will involve the old Citizens Bank structure, which will either be remodeled or torn down.
Both residential and commercial remodels have been active as well, Nicosia said, while construction is plowing forward on the suite of school projects funded by a $37 million bond package approved by voters in October 2019.
While retail is coming in on the commercial side, office spaces have been particularly active. For one, Glacier Medical Associates (GMA) and Orthopedic Rehab Physical Therapy spearheaded a makeover of the “Cedar Palace,” where a multi-tenant medical campus opened in November.
Another healthcare addition is North Valley Hospital’s new physical therapy building.
“That’s a really nice addition to the downtown corridor,” Nicosia said.
Beyond City Limits
The Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office saw elevated activity on multiple fronts last year for projects in county territory.
“Pretty much everything is on the upswing,” Landon Stevens, a planning technician with the planning and zoning office, said.
The office received 23 requests for major subdivisions in 2020, up from 14 in 2019, which Stevens called “quite an increase.” Major subdivisions are those with six lots or more.
The county planning office was also busy with lakefront requests for features such as docks, walkways and buoys. The jump from 81 lakefront requests in 2019 to 107 last year represents a 32% increase.
“That speaks to the increase in activity of newer lakefront owners and overall increase in lakeshore activity,” Stevens said, adding that there are about a dozen or so primary residential lakes under county purview. “I would say that because of the influx of people here, a lot of the folks are seasonal or new owners.”
The county saw continued high interest in administrative conditional-use permits to operate vacation rentals, commonly marketed on websites such as Airbnb and VRBO. Forty vacation-rental applications came through in 2020, down from 53 in 2019, and those are only properties outside of city limits. Vacation rentals inside the boundaries of local communities have boomed in recent years as well, especially during the pandemic.
“People come here and want to live here and potentially profit off their property with the amount of tourists and visitors,” Stevens said. “That’s been a big theme we’ve been seeing in the office.”