The crowd of attendees at the first River Highlands hearing before the Columbia Falls Planning and Zoning Board in July 2022 grew so large it spilled out of city council chambers, where the meetings are regularly held, and into the hallway outside. It became clear to the board that the limited size of the venue had become a barrier to public attendance and participation, so the meeting was rescheduled for a later date, with a change of venue from the city council chambers to the Junior High Cafetorium.
That nearly five-hour meeting, in which the board unanimously rejected the proposed project for the construction of 455 units of housing on 49 acres of land east of the Flathead River, which would have required annexation by the city, drew the largest crowd “by far” that board chair Russ Vukonich had seen in his 20 years on the board. Around 300 people showed up.
It was a sign of things to come. Developers would soon withdraw the River Highlands project proposal and resubmit a scaled-down version. Months later, in the crowded junior high lunchroom that now doubles as a meeting space, the board would again vote down the project after hours of public comment, this time without a single proponent speaking in favor. The board members voted together to reject the application. In late January, the development application was withdrawn again.
The litany of concerns was familiar, too — plans to bore beneath the Flathead River to connect utilities would jeopardize its health; the narrow and winding River Road is already over-burdened, and the increased traffic would put lives at risk; the development is out of character for the neighboring area; development would negatively impact wildlife; it’s the wrong fit for the neighborhood.
In an echo of other Flathead Valley communities, the city of Columbia Falls has been confronted with a need for housing accelerated by pandemic population changes and growth that has driven increased interest from developers, and increased pushback from people in the communities where large-scale changes have been proposed. At the same time, rental prices are spiking due to the same scarce vacancies and market conditions that have squeezed renters in the valley.
For nearly 50 years, Mike Shepard has lived in the Columbia Falls area. A city council member of 30 years, and a longtime planning board member, Shepard has watched the ups and downs of the community, including the shuttering of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC) plant where he used to work. He references that economic blow — the loss of over 1,000 steady jobs — in explaining his perspective that the city is dependent on growth for its survival.
“How do you stop growth? You don’t. You try to control it because it’s going to occur,” Shepard said, adding that he’s been predicting a growth spurt in Columbia Falls for years.
“The question is when? When’s here. COVID accelerated all of this up because people wanted to get out of where they were.”
Census estimates show the city added more than 850 residents from 2010 through 2021; meanwhile, Flathead County added over 13,000 residents, making it the fastest rate of county growth in Montana. At the time the city’s growth policy was last updated in 2019, the city had projected a need for 300 new units of housing by 2025 and 336 by 2030.
“We have to look at some development that’s going to show some density and get some places for these folks to live. If you could finally get your density up, I think you’ll find that prices are going to start moderating and getting closer to what people are making, and that can be affordable,” said Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart, speaking generally about the city’s growth and housing situation. “I don’t see a quick fix to it.”
For Columbia Falls City Planner Eric Mulcahy, what happened with River Highlands is reminiscent of the backlash that preceded the area now housing the very middle school that has hosted the recent crowded planning board meetings. As Mulcahy recalled, in 1995 the Talbot Road neighborhood was in the process of converting from farmland to urban subdivision. Ultimately, the city went through a planning process with the neighborhood, and the applicants resubmitted, in what was a precursor to the construction of the middle school, a medical center and other subdivisions.
According to Mulcahy, the River Highlands developer is still interested in exploring a plan that could include housing and be supported by the planning board.
Shortly after the River Highlands withdrawal, the planning board’s agenda for a Feb. 14 meeting revealed another development east of the Flathead River, on a property north of U.S. Highway 2 and slightly further east that is currently zoned suburban agricultural. Dubbed the 7030 Hwy 2 Residences, the development was put forward by out-of-state developers and calls for 180 residential units, with 99 single-family attached units and 81 apartment units on 22.5 acres of land.
At its most basic level, Mulcahy pointed out that development proposals are happening where developers have land to work with because they’ve been able to purchase it. It’s one reason the city has not seen development out west toward the Blue Moon. To the north, a patchwork of government land, coupled with the ongoing Superfund Site cleanup of the old CFAC aluminum plant site, have limited interest from developers. There are also logistical concerns related to the railroad lines that run north of the city. The city is also infilled with development, meaning there are few lots where a developer could potentially construct with any density within city limits, and density plays a role in assessing profitability. The result is that some residential developers looking to build with density have eyed opportunities across the Flathead River, including an area in which Highway 2 slices through its northern portion, which has been designated by the city’s growth policy for urban/residential growth. To the north of that land, the growth policy designates the land for rural/preserve zoning, and suburban/residential to the south.
Shirley Folkwein is the president of the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association (UFNA), a nonprofit group that has organized opposition and scrutiny of development on the east side of the Flathead River. Folkwein said she feels UFNA has “awakened” city decisionmakers to the importance of engaging in community conversation. As she recounted, UFNA was formed in response to the 2019 hearings for “The Benches Project” subdivision, a 49-unit single family development for the south side of Highway 2. UFNA’s concerns centered on the impact of development on nearby wetlands and the wildlife corridor.
“We … became much more vigilant at watching what was happening as far as development on the east side of the river is concerned,” Folkwein said.
She said UFNA is aware of the housing needs in the area and is willing to engage with the city and its residents, but the group “is not in favor of developers deciding for all of us, the city as well as the citizens, what our needs are and how they can meet those needs.”
While Folkwein views UFNA as having jump-started public engagement, she said social media has created an environment in which it has taken on “kind of a life of its own” that has come to involve more people outside UFNA.
Sam Kavanagh, a planning board member since 2019, said he sees “The Benches Project” as a precursor to the present moment, but said the public response was fairly limited by comparison.
“I think that may have been indicative of the fact that the public wasn’t paying attention, so it kind of comes through that that was a bit of an eye-opener,” Kavanagh said.
Kavanagh said he understands that planning is a slow process “and it can be a painful and arduous process that doesn’t have a lot of appeal to people unless you’re in the trenches, and it’s directly affecting you.”
Still, Kavanagh looks back even further in figuring out how Columbia Falls reached this point. As he pointed out, 2008 was the first time the area east of the river was considered for larger scale development, and the growth policy has reflected that ever since. A development on the River Highlands property that would have included 151 residential units, a commercial market, and short-term rental cabins, was approved in 2008, but never materialized amid the Great Recession.
That period is one that Mulcahy also recalls in the context of the present moment. He described development picking up somewhere around 2004 and, with it, growing backlash.
“Some of it was legitimate, some of it was simply the guy that moved here six months ago couldn’t stand the next guy from Los Angeles or New York City moving in,” Mulcahy said. “Then the crash happened in ’08 and then there was nothing, so of course once things started to pick up, everybody was starving for development for awhile because all the people that were in the construction business and the lumber business and concrete business, whatever it was, they were out there in hard times, and so development was looked at favorably.”
That city’s growth policy, last updated in 2019, has played a central role in the ongoing debates about development in the Columbia Falls area that have played out at planning board meetings. Vukonich, the planning board chair, remembers that despite outreach efforts to encourage community involvement, including going to the Farmer’s Market, posting notices in the newspaper, and other efforts to solicit public feedback, they heard from “almost nobody” during the eight-month span that the updated policy was being worked on.
“I’m very glad that the community and people are weighing in. For years our board didn’t hear from anybody. I can kind of relate that other board members feel the same way,” Vukonich said. “The thing the public doesn’t often understand, is that when you establish growth policies and plans that are in place for 20 years, and then all of a sudden this growth starts happening, and people start questioning the reasoning for it, this is the way it’s been planned for 20 years.”
As Vukonich noted, the policy was crafted to look decades ahead, but it’s “not something that says it has to be this way.”
“It’s a visionary document for the community to give input about how it’s going to deal with potential growth or change,” he said. “The second part of it is it’s supposed to be kind of the guiding book to potential business developers, and people to understand, ‘Hey, this is what they are in favor of.’”
When Mulcahy and city staff review applications, compile reports, and offer recommendations for approval or denial, he said it’s not based on whether they personally support the development. It’s part of a process designed to assess the legality of a proposal as it relates to city and state law.
For Councilor Darin Fisher, who is also a local business owner for whom employee housing is top of mind, assessing whether to support a development comes down to a balance between listening to the valid reasons some people have for opposing growth while understanding that rejecting proposals can lead to build-by-right scenarios, in which an unpopular project that was scuttled could yield construction of single-family homes on large lots that would be financially out of reach for members of the local workforce.
“Columbia Falls is historically a working-class community,” Fisher said. “If we want to remain a working-class community, then the working class must be able to afford to live here. If we deny all attempts at denser, more affordable housing, then we will lose our working-class character because the working class won’t be able to actually live here.”
But Fisher stressed that he doesn’t want to be dismissive of the concerns that people have raised. He also noted that public officials have found themselves at times going up against misinformation, some of it stemming from social media.
He pointed out that in addition to the affordability concerns he sees in a build-by-right scenario, the city would also potentially be forgoing its ability to control short-term rentals through the process of approving zoning amendments and planned unit developments.
“The unintended consequences of the NIMBY (not in my backyard) thinking process is that the parcels will still be developed, but they will be developed in such a way that they continue to use exclusive zoning that only allows for the very wealthy to live here. We have seen this in Whitefish over the past several years,” Fisher said.
Kavanagh, who is currently a teacher in Columbia Falls Public Schools, previously worked as an engineer who worked with developers. He said he’s been on both sides of the table.
“I do inherently, and sincerely believe that we’re in a better place because the public is turning out,” Kavanagh said. “And I encourage anyone, regardless of if they agree or not, to become part of the process, because that’s how we are going to ultimately make positive impacts in the community.”
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