Developer Seeks to Build 455 Units of Housing East of Columbia Falls

The Columbia Falls Planning Board and Zoning Commission will host a hearing on the River Highlands development on July 12

By Mike Kordenbrock
A field along River Road in Columbia Falls is the site of the proposed 455-unit River Highlands development, pictured on June 28, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A developer has submitted an application for a planned unit development east of the Flathead River and south of U.S. Highway 2 that could bring a total of 455 units of housing spread out across 49 acres of land through a combination of single-family dwellings and apartment buildings.

The Columbia Falls Planning Board and Zoning Commission will host a hearing on the development at a July 12 meeting, before the city council considers the development in August.

The project engineering firm behind the “River Highlands Planned Unit Development,” WGM Group, and the lead developer, James Barnett of Flathead Mountain River LLC, were also the architects of the ARIM Mountain Gateway planned unit development that was voted down by the Whitefish City Council in February. Council rejected the development despite offers from Barnett to donate land for affordable housing and a fire station, and to also deed restrict a number of units in the development. Many of the Whitefish residents who had opposed the Mountain Gateway development focused on how they believed it would exacerbate already dangerous traffic problems.

Barnett and Flathead Mountain River LLC were also behind the Silverbrook Apartments in Kalispell.

The River Highlands development has already been met with concern and resistance from some area residents, including the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association (UFNA), which has focused its criticism of the development on the scale of the project and the developer’s proposed plans to extend city water and sewage services by drilling underneath the Flathead River in order to supply the development with utilities. UFNA has also expressed concern about potential traffic issues, and how the development, which is near the Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management Area, could affect wildlife habitat.

Columbia Falls, like other Flathead communities is facing a housing shortage, and the city’s 2019 growth policy anticipated a need for 300 new units of housing by 2025.

 In a PUD narrative dated April 2022, WGM group describes how the River Highlands development is intended to provide long-term rental properties and will include 65 single-family lots for townhomes or rowhouses, and several multi-family apartment buildings housing 390 units. The narrative also states that an acre of land for a total of 10 single family units on the west side of the property would be donated to the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust for construction of affordable housing. As WGM notes in its application materials, the area it wishes to develop was previously approved for a PUD in 2008, when it was slated to include 151 residential units.

The development group explains in the application that it intends to reroute River Road further east of Highway 2 and, “when warranted,” install a traffic signal for left-hand turns.

WGM also said in its PUD application that it seeks to create 23 acres of open space and park space throughout the development, and to integrate a multi-use trail system.

Among the zoning variances the developer is asking to be approved are an additional 10 feet of height “for architectural creativity. To provide pitched roofs on all structures.” The developer is also asking for a variance to reduce parking standards from two per unit to 1.5 per apartment unit, and for a reduction of fire access road width from 20 feet to 12 feet

Barnett said on July 1 that he plans to host an informational public meeting soon, but did not immediately have details to share about a time and location.