Real Estate

City Staff Advise Planning Board to Recommend Approval of River Highlands

The proposed development could bring 455 units of housing to the Columbia Falls area, but community members have raised concerns about the scale and potential impacts of the project

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

Columbia Falls city staff have advised that the Planning and Zoning Commission recommend the city council approve a series of requests from a developer who wants to construct a mixture of single-family dwellings and apartment buildings on a 49-acre parcel east of the Flathead River and south of U.S. Highway 2 that would be annexed into the city.

The proposed development, called the River Highlands, could lead to construction of 455 new units of housing in Columbia Falls over a multi-year period, and would also include the donation of an acre of land to the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust for the construction of affordable housing. The developer has stated in application materials that the development is intended to provide long-term rental properties and that short-term rentals are not planned or being requested.

Columbia Falls, like many other communities in the Flathead Valley, is facing a housing shortage, but some area residents, as well as groups like the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association, have voiced their opposition to the project and raised numerous concerns.

James Barnett is the lead developer on the project. Barnett and his partners are also behind Silverbrook Apartments in Kalispell, and he was also the lead developer for the Mountain Gateway development that the Whitefish City Council in February voted against approving.

Consideration of what to recommend to the council concerning the developer’s requests is on the agenda for a July 12 regular meeting of the Columbia Falls Planning and Zoning Commission, and the city council will hold a public hearing on Aug. 1. The meetings are held in the Council Chambers of City Hall, 130 6th St. W. at 6:30 p.m.

The meeting packet published online in advance of the meeting includes the city staff reports about the developer’s requests, as well as nearly 150 pages of letters and emails almost entirely in opposition to the development. Concerns range from the belief that the size of the development ruining the character of the neighborhood, to fears that the development will create traffic problems or that the plan to bore beneath the Flathead River to connect to city utilities would put the river’s health at risk.

As part of the project, the developer has also proposed rebuilding nearby River Road by moving it further to the east and installing a stop light at the road’s intersection with U.S. Highway 2. A traffic impact study submitted by the developer indicates that a traffic signal at the proposed location would improve congestion even with the additional traffic generated by the development.

In order to provide utilities to the property, the developer has proposed boring beneath the Flathead River to connect with city utilities. The extension of utilities past the river would mean crossing a designated floodplain and, according to city staff, Columbia Falls would need to issue a floodplain development permit and the developer would need permitting from the Flathead Conservation District. Additionally, the developer would need to determine if the Army Corps of Engineers would also require a permit, according to the staff report.

Barnett has asked that the city amend the zoning on the plot of land from CR-3 single family residential zoning to CR-4 urban residential zoning. Additionally, Barnett has asked for approval of a planned unit development (PUD) for the plot, and requested that the development be designated a subdivision.

 The plot of land Barnett is seeking to develop has been approved for a PUD in the past. In 2008 the city approved the property for a planned unit development involving 151 residential units made up of a mixture of single family residences, townhomes and condominiums, as well as a commercial market and short-term rental cabins.

The staff based its recommendation to approve the re-zoning in part by referring to the city’s 2019 growth policy, which designates the property in question for urban residential zoning. The change in zoning amounts to an approval for a greater density of development by lowering the size requirements for lots from roughly one-quarter of an acre to one-sixth of an acre. The River Highlands development will have a density of nine dwellings per acre, which is slightly higher than the maximum eight allowable under urban residential zoning, but city staff determined that density would be allowable under the PUD overlay standards the developer has asked for, which permit up to 12 dwellings per unit acre.

For both the PUD and the subdivision request, city staff recommended approval with some additional stipulations.

In the case of the PUD request, city staff recommend approval subject to 19 different conditions. Those include the developer gaining approval from the Montana Department of Transportation and the city’s public works department for the River Road relocation. Other conditions include that the PUD’s proposed parkland along the Flathead River should remain in a native state apart from some walking paths, that utilities be buried underground, and that lighting should conform to dark sky standards.

The PUD includes requests for deviations from zoning requirements in terms of increasing maximum building height, reducing the number of parking spaces per unit, and reducing the width of the fire lane through the multi-family portion of the development.

In its assessment of wildlife impacts, city staff state that the only sensitive habitat on the property is a portion along the river, which would be protected with an open space designation. The remainder of the property has been in use as a hay field, which, according to the staff report, “does not provide much habitat for birds and animals.”

In a May letter sent to the city, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1 Supervisor Lee Anderson explained the area “is heavily used by wildlife and provides habitat for numerous wildlife species including white-tailed deer, elk, black bears, grizzly bears, and migratory birds.” Anderson also states the development “will have significant impacts to wildlife on this parcel and in the surrounding area.”

The staff report also calls into questions the analysis of FWP about setbacks from the Flathead River for the development. In the May letter, Anderson noted that, according to FWP design standards, developments adjacent to rivers should be 300 feet from the high water mark, and this project falls 100 feet short of that distance.

“FWP must have not scaled the development correctly because all but a small corner of one building is in excess of 300-feet for ordinary high water,” the staff report says. “It should be pointed out that neither the City of Columbia Falls or Flathead County have adopted this recommendation for a setback.”