Developer Withdraws River Highlands Application

James Barnett, the developer behind the controversial housing project along the Flathead River in Columbia Falls, encountered intense public opposition at a planning board meeting earlier this month

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

The application for the controversial River Highlands development has been withdrawn by the developer, and the Columbia Falls City Council will no longer hold a hearing on the topic at its Aug. 29 meeting.

Columbia Falls Planner Eric Mulcahy received an email from lead developer James Barnett shortly after 6:30 p.m. Monday night in which Barnett notified him of the application’s withdrawal. Barnett did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the decision to withdraw the River Highlands application.

The withdrawal means “the project as it stood is dead,” Mulcahy said. A new application would essentially restart the process for approval. It would need to be reviewed by city staff, which can take up to 90 days. From there it would need to go before the planning board and city council.

Barnett had proposed constructing a mixture of single family dwellings and apartment buildings on 49 acres of land east of the Flathead River and south of Highway 2. The project was intended to produce 455 units of housing which the developer stated were meant to be long-term rentals.

The project also entailed rerouting River Road and installing a stoplight at its intersection with Highway 2, and connecting to city utilities by boring beneath the Flathead River. Additionally, the development was to include bike trails and walking paths and a donation of 10 acres of land to the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust for affordable housing.

Columbia Falls, like other Flathead Valley communities, is currently in the midst of a housing crisis, and the city’s growth policy anticipates a need for 300 new units of housing by 2025. Despite these issues and the potential housing River Highlands could offer, the development was met with significant opposition. Chief among the concerns raised by members of the public were safety issues related to the development’s density, including the amount of traffic it would generate and the rerouting of River Road, as well as the potential environmental risks to the Flathead River opponents associated with the development’s plan for utilities.

The parcel of land, which is made up largely of green space and hay fields, could still be developed. The land is currently zoned CR-3 single family residential. It was approved in 2008 for a planned unit development that would have involved 151 residential units made up of single-family residences, townhomes and condominiums, as well as a commercial market and rental cabins. That development never materialized amid the Great Recession.

A planning board meeting about the development earlier this month drew about 300 people to the Columbia Falls Jr. High School cafetorium. The meeting ran for over five hours. After hearing public comment from about 60 people that were almost entirely either implicitly or explicitly in opposition to the development, the board unanimously voted against a series of requests the developer had made, including a zoning change, planned unit development and subdivision approval.

Russ Vukonich, the planning board’s chair, has been on the board for more than 20 years. He said the turnout at this month’s meeting is “by far the largest” he’s seen for a Columbia Falls planning board meeting. According to Vukonich, the city council in general follows the planning board’s recommendations, but sometimes makes changes or modifications.

Mulcahy, the Columbia Falls planner, said he had been in conversations with the developer and that he believes the planning board meeting was a significant factor in the withdrawal. Mulcahy found the development to be compatible with the city’s 2019 growth policy, and so he recommended the planning board approve the project with additional conditions. During discussion, board members expressed concerns about the negative effects a development of this size would have on area residents.

“It was a unanimous recommendation for denial by the planning board, which carries a significant amount of weight. So the developer, you know, basically knew that it was a heavy lift to overcome all of that and get a positive approval out of the council,” Mulcahy said. “And so I think what his goal is, with the information that he gleaned from the planning board discussion, is to take a look at his project and see whether he can design it to address some of those issues and still have a project that’s economically viable.”

This is at least the second setback Barnett has faced this year for a proposed development in Flathead County. In February, the Whitefish City Council rejected the Mountain Gateway Development that could have brought 318 units of housing to Whitefish, including 270 apartments, 36 townhouses and 12 condominiums, on 32 acres of land north of the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive. The project also would have included gifting a tract of land to the city for a fire station, and the installation of a roundabout at Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive.

Shirley Folkwein, president of the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association (UFNA), a nonprofit which organized people to oppose River Highlands, called the withdrawal good news “for the neighborhood, for the citizens of Columbia Falls, and for the natural world.”

“We were hopeful, but really had no sense what direction the council might go,” Folkwein said. “If the council voted to approve it, it was full steam ahead.”

After the planning board meeting, UFNA continued to encourage people to write letters to the city council and show up for the now-canceled city council special meeting, with the idea being that they needed at least another 300 people to turn out, according to Folkwein.

Moving forward, Folkwein said UFNA will continue “to promote the protection of natural resources, water quality, and wildlife habitat in rural landscapes. And we’ll support land use planning for sensible growth.”

Folkwein said she planned to celebrate Wednesday night, before getting back to work on Thursday. She emphasized that UFNA is not going away.

“We’re going to continue being the watchdog for our neighborhood, and really appreciate all the support we got from people in the community,” Folkwein said.

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