Planning Board Votes Down Controversial Columbia Falls Development

A developer’s zoning requests to construct the 455-unit River Highlands subdivision east of the Flathead River is slated to go before city council on Aug. 29

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

In a unanimous Aug. 9 vote that ran counter to the recommendations of city staff, the Columbia Falls Planning Board and Zoning Commission rejected a developer’s requests seeking approval of a proposed subdivision east of the Flathead River, voicing concerns about the project’s density and characterizing it as out of step with the community’s values and growth trajectory.

Despite the planning board’s vote against recommending the River Highlands development for approval, the subdivision will once again take center stage at a special Columbia Falls City Council meeting on Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. the Columbia Falls Junior High School, the same venue that a crowd of 300 people packed this week for a meeting that ran for nearly five hours. With few exceptions, the attendees who spoke during public comment were clearly united in their opposition to the project, which could be annexed into the city and bring with it the phased, multi-year construction of 455 units of housing through a mixture of single-family dwellings and apartment buildings on a 49-acre parcel of land.  

Specifically, River Highlands LLC and the lead developer on the project, James Barnett, are seeking to build on land east of the Flathead River and south of U.S. Highway 2. The property would be annexed into the city as part of the project, and the developer has proposed boring beneath the Flathead River to connect to city utilities, as well as rebuilding River Road further to the east and installing a stop light at the road’s intersections with U.S. Highway 2. The developer’s plans also include leaving green space along the river, and developing bike paths and walking paths in the area.

The land in question was approved for a different planned unit development in 2008 that never materialized, due in part to the onset of the Great Recession. That project could have brought 151 residential units made up of single-family residences, townhomes and condominiums, as well as a commercial market and short-term rental cabins.

The developer has asked city officials for a zoning change from CR-3 single-family residential to CR-4 urban residential (a zoning for the area that is already called for in the city’s 2019 growth policy). He’s also requesting approval for a planned unit development and a request for a subdivision. The zoning change and PUD combined would allow for up to 12 dwellings per unit acre, and the developer’s plans are for nine dwellings per unit acre. The developer has also stated that the development is intended for long-term rental properties and that short-term rentals are not planned or being requested.

The PUD would also allow for a reduction in parking space requirements, and increased height on structures in the development, something an engineer on the project said was related to a desire for gabled roofs on structures. City staff have recommended approval of the developer’s requests contingent on around 20 additional requirements being met.

Discussion among board members prior to their votes indicated they felt the development was not appropriate for the area in question, in part because of its size. 

“I am terribly concerned about the lifestyle and the change of what’s going to happen to the people it the area,” said Steve Duffy, after explaining that he was not concerned about the aspect of the project related to boring beneath the river, an environmental concern that was raised repeatedly by other audience members.

Board member Sam Kavanagh focused his remarks on what he views as an excessive amount of dwelling density the development would bring on a per-acre basis, and his concerns about the traffic problems it would create along River Road.

“To be honest, I think there’s a lot to be wrestled with here,” Kavanagh said.

The audience gathered this week in the junior high’s cafetorium as an alternative venue after a hearing in July had to be postponed because of the significant public turnout. Even so, the meeting was delayed in order to accommodate a line of people waiting to sign in; at one point, the queue stretched out of the school.

Few board members offered any supportive words for the project, which city staff recommended for approval after determining it was compatible with the city’s 2019 growth policy. The tension was evident between the city staff’s interpretation of the growth policy, which some board members had helped craft, and the realities of the project being assessed.   

Going into the meeting, the board had already received hundreds of pages of letters regarding the development, with many in opposition. Public comment last Tuesday night stretched on for over two hours, and of the nearly 60 people who spoke, almost every person explicitly or implicitly opposed the project. The meeting adjourned shortly before midnight. The engineering firm employed by the developer is WGM Group, and engineer Mike Brodie presented on behalf of the developer to the council. Barnett, the developer, was absent from the meeting.

Commenters frequently focused on how the development would affect traffic on River Road, and the safety risks and quality of life issues they believe increased traffic through the area would bring. They also expressed skepticism over the traffic study the developer submitted, which showed improvements to traffic with the changes.

“I believe that the traffic study that the staff relied on was done in January,” Columbia Falls resident Scot Schemerhorn said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “I think we can all agree that traffic’s a little different in July and August than it is in January. That’s a very fortuitous time to do a traffic study and I think it speaks to the credibility of the developer to try to pull something like that off.”

Gary Hall, a former mayor of Columbia Falls who also served as a Flathead County commissioner, excoriated the development during public comment. Hall has also published numerous letters to the editor in local papers criticizing River Highlands.

“I’d like to point out that in my career as mayor and county commissioner, I have reviewed and approved literally hundreds of subdivisions. When I first heard about this, I confess I was concerned because it’s in my neighborhood. But when I opened the PUD, I found that this is simply a developer and its board of investor’s financial opportunity, and not something that will benefit Columbia Falls. In fact, it is the worst proposal ever presented in this community. I am shocked that staff would support it,” Hall said, before going into detail about the traffic issues and hazards he think would accompany the project because of construction and associated population growth in the area. “I would ask that you require a $2 million surety bond if this moves forward, because there’s going to be expenses this city cannot afford. Please do not pass this onto the council, it needs to stop here.”

Kim Morisaki, executive director of the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust, was one of the few commenters who emphasized the housing problems the city currently faces, as well as the need to expand its inventory of rental units.

The land trust is a nonprofit with a stated mission to provide permanently affordable homeownership opportunities for families in the Flathead Valley with low- or moderate-income levels. The developer behind River Highlands has offered to donate an acre of land from the parcel in question to the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust.

“Currently in the market that we’re living in today, it is impossible to build any kind of single-family home for less than $350,000, but there is a huge part of our workforce, particularly in Columbia Falls, that cannot qualify for that type of mortgage” Morisaki said. “There also is an incredible shortage of rental space because we have people who are being pushed out of homes they’ve rented for a long time.”

Morisaki ran down a list of employment demographics — including grocery story workers, hospital workers, auto mechanics and city water department workers — that she said typically can qualify for a $250,000 mortgage.

“A lot of them are being pushed out. I know, I talk to them every day because they are calling me,” Morisaki said. “They are teachers, they are police officers. And they are living in their parents’ basements because there is simply nothing to buy and nothing to rent, at any price.”

More than 30 people had already commented and the meeting was nearing the four-hour mark by the time Lindsey Hromadka, an attorney representing the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association, stepped up to offer comment to the board, in what amounted to the beginning of one of the meeting’s more contentious encounters between the board and the public. Hromadka objected to the board conducting the hearings together on the components of the River Highlands agenda items, and explained that she felt the three-minute time limit for each commenter was insufficient. She also called the developer’s application “deficient” and said the staff report did not adequately address the issues raised by a development of this size. After an alarm went off signifying Hromadka’s time had run out, Board Chair Russ Vukonich signaled that her time was up.

“I’m going to keep talking,” Hromadka responded, setting off a further exchange between her and Vukonich, who reminded her that the three minute time limit had been established at the beginning of the meeting so that all attendees would have a chance to speak.

“Our city attorney verified that that was legal, and if you have an objection about that you may take it up in the form that you know is available to you as a member of the legal community. But at this time, your time is up, and I’m asking you to step back from your podium,” Vukonich said.

Remaining at the podium, Hromadka indicated she would not step back, prompting Vukonich to call for a recess, during which Columbia Falls Police Department Lt. Gary Denham spoke with Hromadka as people in the crowd shouted and booed.

Still standing at the microphone, Hromadka announced she’d been instructed to leave or be charged with disorderly conduct, and explained she was only abandoning her post to avoid being charged, and so that her client would not have to pay for her ticket. She returned to her seat, where she sat for the remainder of the meeting.

The prospect of connecting to city utilities by boring beneath the Flathead River was also raised as a point of concern by members of the public who see it as a hazard to the health of the river.

When asked about boring beneath the river to connect to utilities, city planner Eric Mulcahy explained the underground utilities would need to exceed the depth of scouring during a flooding event by two times. The decision to go under the river instead of over it was a matter of preference from the engineering group, he said, adding that both ways were feasible.

“I’ve called around. For example, Missoula has a 36-inch sewer main going under the Clark Fork River that’s bored,” Mulcahy said. “The city of Kalispell has bores underneath the Stillwater River. Whitefish has bores and suspensions. Bigfork has suspensions on the Bigfork River.”

Before the board voted against adopting the city staff report as findings of fact, and ultimately against the various requests from the developer, Vukonich characterized his position as a rare break between himself and Mulcahy, the city planner. 

“Like I said, I’ve been on this board a long time. Mr. Mulcahy and I go back probably 30 years. And it’s not often that I would be opposed to one of his reports. I am in opposition to this,” Vukonich said.

After Mulcahy finished presenting the city staff report, Vukonich asked him to elaborate about whether the requested zoning variance — and, specifically, the size of the buildings proposed — pays adequate consideration to the character of a riverside district known for its unobstructed view-shed and open spaces. Mulcahy acknowledged there’s a disparity between existing use and housing density in that area; however, he said that’s true of anywhere in Montana where there’s expansion into agricultural areas.

“No matter which direction we grow, we will be converting agricultural and rural lands to an urban designation. And so that’s just a fact of city growth,” Mulcahy said. “And so, when I review these, I’m reviewing these projects per the policy that has been set by the planning board and the city council. And essentially you guys have directed me through your growth policy, which says this area can accept urban growth.”

He added that when developers come into his office looking at the city’s growth policy, they are looking for areas that are designated by the city for urban expansion.

“And so, these are the areas that we, as a community, through following the growth policy processes that we’ve gone through, have said you wanted to develop. So, when you go through the growth policy and take six to eight months to go through that plan, you’re essentially setting the policy and the direction of the growth. And this is a result of that.”

In addition to identifying the area in question for development, the growth policy also anticipates a need for 300 new units of housing in Columbia Falls by 2025.