Columbia Falls Planning Board Rejects Scaled-Down Version of River Highlands Development

A final decision to approve the revised housing development is still up to the Columbia Falls City Council and will take place later this month

By Mike Kordenbrock
The Columbia Falls Planning Board appears at a meeting to discuss the River Highlands development at Columbia Falls Junior High School on Jan. 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At a crowded, multi-hour hearing Tuesday night, members of the Columbia Falls City-County Planning Board voted against recommending a scaled-down version of the controversial River Highlands housing project, which a developer is proposing on 49 acres of land directly east of the Flathead River and south of U.S. Highway 2.

In voting against the project’s approval for the second time in five months, planning board members cited concerns that are by now a familiar refrain for residents living in a valley beset with growth and development pressures, as well as a housing crisis. Their objections ranged from concerns about the city’s capacity to accommodate new utility burdens, to the project’s density, as well as its perceived conflicts with community character and traffic congestion — this, despite the developer’s submission of a reimagined proposal containing less density than the one he submitted last year, only to withdraw it amid intense public opposition.

A large crowd attended the Columbia Falls Planning Board meeting to discuss the River Highlands development at Columbia Falls Junior High School on Jan. 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The most recent version of the development application, submitted to the city in December, cut the number of units of housing down by more than 100, with a total of 343 units of housing consisting of a mix of 98 attached single-family homes, 162 apartment units and 83 detached single-family homes, for a reduced density of 6.9 units per acre. That compares to 9.2 units per acre in the previous application. The resubmitted application also does not ask for deviations to reduce parking spaces or increase building height, nor does it ask for a zoning change. It also no longer includes a promised donation of an acre of land to the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust, something senior project engineer Mike Brodie said he and the developer intended to keep exploring but removed from the revised application because of uncertainty about the cost of the development at its reduced scale. The current version of the development sets aside 19 acres for park space and open space, and the developer has offered to dedicate five acres to the city as a park. The development would leave the river frontage as either a park or natural open space area.

 Both versions of the development proposed moving River Road further east, as well as installing a traffic signal at its intersection with U.S. Highway 2, which a traffic study included in the application determined would upgrade the intersection from an F, or failing grade, to a C. If the development were to move forward, the land, which is currently in the county, would be annexed into the city. Both versions of the development also propose connecting to city utilities by boring beneath the Flathead River, although Brodie said they are open to an alternative plan that calls for affixing utility connections to the underside of a bridge.

Senior Project Engineer Mike Brodie for WGM Group, the developer for the River Highlands housing development, presents a revised plan for the neighborhood at a Columbia Falls Planning Board meeting at Columbia Falls Junior High School on Jan. 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A Columbia Falls city staff report recommended conditional approval of the development. Of the eight board members in attendance Tuesday, seven voted against accepting the city staff’s report as findings of fact. One board member, Patti Singer, abstained from voting, while board member Steve Duffy was absent from the meeting. After the vote, discussion among city staff led the board to conclude that its rejection of the staff report as findings of fact had nullified the remainder of its agenda, amounting to the equivalent of a decision not to recommend approval of the project.

The board’s decision is not a final determination but rather serves to advise the city council in making its own decision. The Columbia Falls City Council is currently scheduled to host a hearing on the development on Jan. 30.

Last summer, after the planning board decided not to recommend approval of the previous version of River Highlands, the developer, James Barnett, pulled the application ahead of its appearance before the city council. The planning board rejected the development this time around because of similar concerns.

However, a city staff report concluded that, although the area has historically been used for agriculture, it has been fallow for at least a decade, and had long been designated for residential development in the city’s growth policy. Prior to Barnett expressing interest, another developer was approved in 2008 for a planned unit development on the property that proposed building 151 residential units made up of single-family residences, townhomes and condominiums, as well as a commercial market and short-term rental cabins. That development never materialized, in part due to the onset of the Great Recession.

Despite the scaled-down version of Barnett’s application, board members renewed their concerns about the development’s size, with some of them focused on whether the city’s utilities, including its wastewater treatment system, could handle the increased demand. Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia told the board that the city does have the capacity and is working with an engineering firm on a planned expansion to increase it further; however, she was unable to provide an exact number or unit for the city’s wastewater treatment capacity.

Board members also worried about the development’s attendant traffic issues, particularly if the development broke ground before any road improvements were made.

Columbia Falls City Planner Eric Mulcahy told the board that changes to the road and its intersection would need approval from the Montana Department of Transportation, and that if approval was not granted, the development would stall. Board members also raised questions about the application’s traffic impact study. As Brodie explained, the study did not look at River Road going where it intersects to the south with Columbia Falls Stage Road, but did look at River Road and Highway 2, and Highway 2 and Highway 206. Southbound traffic was something that Board Chair Russ Vukonich had asked about at one point, noting that it would be the direction people would travel if they were headed to Kalispell for work. Board member Sam Kavanagh eventually concluded that he felt “the analysis and evaluation of impacts of transportation for the general area was incomplete and insufficient.”

At another point during the prolonged discussion, Mike Shepard, a city councilor and board member, grew audibly exasperated, telling the audience that the most compelling moment of the meeting arrived when someone suggested buying the land back and placing it in a trust. The crowd applauded, but Shepard told them to calm down.

“The reason I say that is, this family sold this piece of property to a developer,” Shepard said. “What do developers do? They develop. This is going to be developed, whether it’s done now, or two years from now, or 10 years from now. The question is when.”

He explained that his opposition to the project centered on its density even if development on the land was inevitable.

“But this mentality that I am seeing — and I travel the state quite a bit — ‘I live here and I don’t want anyone else to move here,’ has to stop folks. This is America. That is how the capitalism system works. You can’t deny people moving here. California, Washington, Texas and Florida. Boy are they here. Those are your four big states. And they brought more money than I’ve ever been able to able to (make) working at the aluminum plant. So you’ve got to remember it’s going to be developed. The question is when and how, if this is not passed this evening. And that’s all I have to say.”

Board member Kurt Nelson said he wasn’t particularly concerned with the proposal to connect to utilities by boring beneath the Flathead River. Instead, his concern centered on the traffic density the development would bring to the area.

Board member Patti Singer also described concerns related to traffic, saying that before any construction happens a light is needed at River Road and Highway 2. “It’s a problem. I see it. I drive it. I see how long it takes to turn. I’m afraid to cross the road, so I see that as a problem,” she said, before going on to mention other concerns, including potential impact to the community’s crowded schools.

Singer and others also mentioned a desire to see a ban on short-term rentals included in covenants, conditions and restrictions for the development. Brodie, the engineer representing the developer, said earlier in the meeting that the developer would welcome such restrictions, and that short-term rentals were not intended for this development.

Vukonich also questioned how the development would fit with the surrounding area.

“I do believe as a member of the board for many, many years, that the Growth Policy never envisioned a project of this density, and it does not fit the character of the neighborhood or the vision that the community has moving forward. That pretty much sums it up for me,” he said.

Columbia Falls Planning Board Chair Russ Vukonich discusses the River Highlands development at Columbia Falls Junior High School on Jan. 10, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Brodie explained during his presentation to the board that he and the developer had taken into consideration the concerns that people had raised about the previous development application. Still, of the 35 people who delivered comment, all of them were either explicitly or implicitly opposed to the development.

The meeting was held at the Columbia Falls Junior High Cafetorium to accommodate a crowd size that ballooned to 200 people and lasted about four hours. Commenters this time generally focused on expressing their issues with the development, including their fears over traffic safety, their belief that it would negatively affect the surrounding community, concerns about negative effects on wildlife and fears about the risks the development could pose to the health of the Flathead River should there be a rupture in the piping that would move wastewater beneath the river.

Some commenters indicated they think the project would not serve members of the local population that need housing and would instead lead to a population increase. The city’s 2019 growth policy anticipates a need for 300 new units of housing by 2025, and 336 by 2030.