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Development

Controversial Alpine Coaster Spurs Revival of Lakeside Community Council

As an amusement park-like development nears completion near Flathead Lake, the Upper West Shore Alliance is reviving an advisory board to keep future developments in check

By Micah Drew
Flathead Lake as viewed from Lakeside Community Park in Lakeside on April 14, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead Lake Alpine Coaster, slated to open along the west shore of Flathead Lake in April, has drawn the ire of the unincorporated community of Lakeside over the last year, with developers opting against community engagement as they lay plans for a roller-coaster like attraction that residents say does not fit with the neighborhood and will increase traffic along the highway through town.

Because the property near Lakeside is not zoned, there are no municipal sideboards or public processes to keep the development in check. This has spurred a community group, the Upper West Shore Alliance (UWSA), to push for a revival of the latent Lakeside Community Council (LCC) to give the community a recourse against future projects.

“There’s been lots of enthusiasm within the community and people have come forward,” Janie Lewer, UWSA director, said. “Reviving the council was strongly encouraged by the county commissioners. I also think that with the coaster development, the thing that bubbled to the top during community conversations was that we had no one to represent us. It’s unzoned, the commissioners don’t have authority to do anything, so we didn’t know what the recourse for the community was. Even though this is just an advisory committee, the hope is that they’ll represent the voices of the Lakeside community.”

There are a dozen advisory boards that aid the Flathead County Planning and Zoning department and the LCC is one of two currently without members. After a special election in May, the group will become operational for the first time since 2016.

As an advisory board for the county’s planning and zoning department, the council serves as a liaison between the county commissioners, planning staff and the citizens of the Lakeside community, which is defined in the Lakeside Neighborhood Plan with boundaries of Spring Creek Road to the north and the Lake County border to the south. The council can review applications submitted to the county’s planning and zoning department that may affect growth near Lakeside, including zoning and development applications. 

The council is a seven-member board with six members elected by the community and the seventh appointed by the Flathead County Commissioners. Currently eight candidates have declared for the May election. Lewer said the UWSA plans to release bios of the candidates in the coming weeks.

One project Lewer hopes the LCC will take the lead on is securing zoning for portions of the Lakeside area, specifically the scenic corridor along the highway, which would subject properties to county oversight prior to any development. Members of the UWSA recently had a workshop with the county’s planning director, Erick Mack, to discuss the process of bringing zoning amendments forward.

“People are just growing more concerned about the growth and lack of infrastructure along the west shore. A local government professor at MSU told me that there’s always a catalyst for a community to decide to zone,” Lewer said. “In our case it was the coaster.”

The alpine coaster is part of a project by Torsten and Jessica Wedel of Wilderness Land Holdings, LLC, to build the Flathead Adventure Park just north of Lakeside along U.S. Highway 93. An alpine coaster is a small toboggan-style gravity-powered roller coaster on elevated tracks that is a popular summertime attraction at many mountain resorts. The coaster’s business description with the Lakeside Somers Chamber of Commerce describes it as the “1st and only” alpine coaster in Montana. The “year-around (sic) attraction lets you take the adventure, experience and speed into your own hands.”

The owners initially submitted plans to build a gift shop and maintenance shed on the site just north of Lakeside in early 2022. The plans included parking spaces for at least 85 vehicles. It was later learned the Wedels also intended to build an alpine coaster on the property, which was similar to an earlier attempt by the couple to develop an adventure park on the south end of Flathead Lake. That proposal, which required a zoning change, was rejected by the Lake County Commission following extensive opposition by county residents.

The Lakeside property isn’t bound by zoning restrictions, allowing the Wedels to begin construction. The main point of contention with the local community is the high amount of anticipated vehicle traffic that would be turning off of Highway 93 to access the property. A 2021 traffic impact study indicated peak summer traffic volumes passing the Highway 93 location at nearly 14,000 vehicle trips per day. Documents submitted by the Wedels to the Montana Department of Transportation estimate between 200 and 300 groups per day.

MDT officials have recommended speed limit adjustments and consideration of constructing a turn lane to accommodate the traffic.

“Our concern is that they’re building an amusement park in a fragile part of a community with a high population of pedestrian and bike use,” Lewer said, adding that she’s concerned about traffic impeding the only route for school buses and first responders to get to and from the community.

Just this week, Lewer drove by a vehicle crash near the alpine coaster property that backed up northbound traffic, including multiple school buses she said were held up for more than 30 minutes.

“I think there’s still a chance the developers could do some community outreach about this project,” Lewer said. “There’s still time to make accommodations with the road to make it safe for the community.”

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