Real Estate

Columbia Falls Planning Board Rejects Development Near Flathead River

The decision marks the third time since August that the board has rejected approving a high-density development east of the Flathead River

By Mike Kordenbrock
A rendering depicting the proposed 7030 Highway 2 Residences development in Columbia Falls. Courtesy image

The Columbia Falls Planning Board and Zoning Commission on Feb. 14 voted against recommending approval of a development that could bring 180 units of housing through a mixture of single family attached units and apartments to 22.5 acres of land east of the Flathead River.

The development, called the 7030 Hwy 2 Residences, is currently scheduled for a hearing in front of the Columbia Falls City Council on March 20, where the council could approve or reject the project. The developer has requested a zone change from suburban agricultural to urban residential, and approval of a planned unit development. City staff recommended conditional approval of the development.

The board, which voted unanimously against recommending approval of the project, made its decision toward the close of a five-hour meeting that drew roughly 100 people on Valentine’s Day to the Columbia Falls Jr. High Cafetorium. It marks the third time since last August that the planning board has voted down a development for the same general area, with both previous votes coming against different versions of the River Highlands development proposed on a 49-acre area east of River Road and south of Highway 2. 

The 7030 Hwy 2 Residences would be located just east of the Flathead River and north of Highway 2. The development application was filed by 500 River Partners, an affiliate of Florida-based Location Acquisitions. Application materials listed the property owners as High Country Land & Cattle (MT) LLC and Twin Peaks Farms LLC, with addresses in Phoenix, Arizona and Eagle, Idaho, respectively. Location Acquisitions is an arm of Location Ventures out of Coral Gables, Florida, whose CEO, Rishi Kapoor, kicked off an extensive presentation during which he described a two-year planning process leading up to the project’s proposal, including stakeholder input. Kapoor framed the project as part of a solution to the community’s housing woes and said the current plan would bring $100 million in investment to the area.

The 7030 Hwy 2 Residences development is planned for a density of 7.9 units-per-acre. The units of housing would come through 99 units in single-family attached townhouses, and 81 apartment units ranging from one to three bedrooms. The project also proposes rerouting River Road further to the east, and the developer has proposed boring beneath the Flathead River to connect to utilities, although a presentation was given that also explored the idea of attaching connections to city utilities to the nearby bridge.

“We picked an area that is part of your growth plan, where a certain density and realistically lower cost of land for home is a recipe on how you can achieve attainable price points that are the backbone of our community,” Kapoor said. “And without density and without lower land basis, we’re just going to get more million-dollar homes, and that’s a reality.”

The intention is for the units to be rentals, but Kapoor said he is open to the possibility of a “hybrid model” involving the sale of some units. However, he described uncertainty about going forward with that option in light of changing market conditions that aren’t currently favorable to homebuyers.

Asked about rental prices, Kapoor said his group is market driven when it comes to pricing and pegged the current pricing at around $2 per square foot. On a 600-square-foot studio, which is one of the unit models included in the development, Kapoor said that would “imply” a rent of $1,200 a month. Units in the development range up to 2,100 square feet, Kapoor said. He also said the project was not intended for short-term rentals, meaning rentals of less than 30 days.

The development would include park space and a “clubhouse” with gathering space and fitness amenities built along its western border near the river. The same area would also be open for public access to the river, and the developer has proposed setting aside 25 parking spaces nearby for public use. City staff had reported that six spaces would be allocated for public use, but KLJ’s Mark Rohweder, the lead engineer on the project, said that the parking spaces outside the private clubhouse would be available for public use, which would bring the total of parking available to the public up to 25 parking spaces.

The entirety of the development leaves 55% of the property as green space. Frank Astor, the president of Location Ventures’ single family home division, said the group is exploring the possibility of including a wildlife corridor, possibly along the western edge of the property, although some board members questioned its feasibility.

University of Montana economist and Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) Director Patrick Barkey delivered a presentation about the county’s housing needs on behalf of the developer, describing a deficit of 3,161 units in the county as of 2022.

“According to our analysis we think that Flathead County needs to add 1,500 net new housing units of all kinds, at all price levels, in each of the coming 10 years for a total of 15,000 units by year 2032,” Barkey said.

More than 25 public comments were submitted by email, and a little over 20 people spoke during the meeting, with all but one person opposing the development. Many of the concerns centered on the project’s proposal to tunnel beneath the river, the potential impact on wildlife, the project’s density, traffic issues, the affordability of the development, and their belief that it would encourage unsustainable population growth.

Before casting her vote, board member Patti Singer explained her stance, saying that with recent approval of other developments, and her belief that they will bring more people, the potential impact on infrastructure — including streets, schools and stores — makes her think there’s a need to “slow down a little bit and sit back” and “see what really happens and how it impacts us.”

Claudette Byrd-Rincke said she was “adamantly opposed” because of the threat she believes the development poses to wildlife. The proposed development is on land that is a mixture of hay field, emergent wetland and riparian woodland, and is about 525 feet south of the Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management Area. A Jan. 30 letter from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 1 Supervisor Lee Anderson was included in the board’s packet. Anderson wrote to city staff saying that a high density-development in the area would “have significant negative impacts to wildlife on this parcel and the surrounding area.” The area “is used frequently by wildlife and provides habitat for numerous wildlife species including white-tailed deer, elk, black bears, grizzly bears, small mammals, amphibians, and migratory birds,” Anderson wrote. He also stated in his letter that continued high density development in the area would have cumulative impacts to wildlife species, and that of particular concern is the impact on maintenance and potential loss of a north-south wildlife movement corridor from the Flathead River east to Highway 206.

After the vote, Columbia Falls City Planner Eric Mulcahy read aloud from a portion of his notes as he sought to verify the concerns he heard board members raise during their discussion. The concerns centered on the development’s impacts to groundwater and wildlife, pedestrian access, concerns that the project doesn’t meet the character of the area, and “potentially that some infrastructure needs to be developed in the city for development.”

Russ Vukonich, the board chair, added that the board had found the Traffic Impact Study submitted “to be deficient,” and board member Sam Kavanagh said that there were concerns regarding mitigation and impacts to wetlands.