Real Estate

Planning Board Meeting on River Highlands Development to Take Place at Larger Venue

High attendance at the July 12 meeting prompted the decision to reschedule and relocate the meeting, according to board chair

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 Columbia Falls Planning Board and Zoning Commission meeting that ended early on July 12 because of the large number of people that showed up in person to comment on a proposed housing development will be continued on August 9 at Columbia Falls Junior High at 6:30 p.m.

The development, called River Highlands, could bring up to 455 units of housing through a mixture of single-family dwellings and apartment buildings spread out across 49 acres of land that sits east of the Flathead River and south of U.S. Highway 2.

Russ Vukonich, the board chair, said they were able to get through the first item on the agenda before the River Highlands discussion, but the volume of people who attended caused the crowd to spill out of the city hall council chambers and into the hallway outside.

“It was very clear that once we got started, we couldn’t fit enough people in the room,” Vukonich said. “Those that were in the hallway couldn’t hear anything, and they have a right to be participating. It was very clear we needed to reschedule.”

Before last week’s meeting, the development had already generated opposition, some of it in the form of around 100 letters and emails included in the board’s meeting packet that was made available prior to the meeting. Those comments were almost entirely in opposition to the construction of the development.

Opponents and skeptics have expressed concerns about various aspects of the River Highlands, including the developer’s interest in boring beneath the Flathead River in order to connect to city utilities, the proposed rerouting of River Road, and the effect of the development on wildlife. Written comments also included concerns about the size of the development and how it would change the character of the area.

The meeting agenda included hearings on the developer’s requests to re-zone the plot of land, gain approval for a planned unit development on the plot with some variances, and for the development to be designated a subdivision.

 Going into the meeting, city staff had reviewed the developer’s application materials and recommended that the planning board advise the Columbia Falls City Council to approve the developer’s requests as long as certain conditions are met by the developer.

The lead developer, James Barnett, was also the lead developer on the Mountain Gateway development that was voted down by the city council in Whitefish last winter, despite the offer of a number of deed-restricted units, and land donations for the construction of additional units and affordable housing, as well as land for a fire station.