Columbia Falls City Council Rejects 7030 Highway 2 Residences Development

Members of the council who voted against the development for an area east of the Flathead River voiced concerns about building in an environmentally sensitive area, traffic safety, and density

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

The Columbia Falls City Council voted Monday night by a 5-2 margin to reject approval of the 7030 Highway 2 Residences development that proposed constructing 180 units of housing on 22.5 acres of land near the eastern side of the Flathead River through a mixture of single family attached townhouse-style units and apartments. 

Location Ventures, a development business based out of Coral Gables, Florida, had asked for a zone change from suburban agricultural to urban residential, and approval of a planned unit development. The 2019 growth policy had also designated the area in question for urban residential zoning. The development was proposed for an area north of Highway 2 and east of the Flathead River and would have left 55% of the land as open space, and included some public parking and river access.

After the votes concluded, Mayor Don Barnhart, who had voted against the development, shared some additional thoughts with the audience.

“The amount of work and thought that went into this subdivision application by the proposers of this was great. I think their subdivision idea is wonderful and I think it is housing that is much needed in this municipality. Unfortunately, it is in the wrong spot,” Barnhart said. “As time goes forward, I hope that the developer will find an area close to Columbia Falls where we can use our city municipal water and sewer and bring that middling area of rentals to this area. I think it’s much needed.”

More than 100 people showed up to the meeting, which was held in the Little Theater at Columbia Falls High School, with a few people holding signs urging the council to vote against the zone change. Following the conclusion of their vote on the development, the council broke into a five-minute recess before continuing the meeting. As soon as the break was called people in the audience began cheering as nearly all of them made their way to the exits.

The council had previously heard public comment, and both developer and staff presentations at a meeting in March that ran for more than five hours, before opting to continue the meeting and deliver a decision at a later date. During the March meeting, the council heard 46 comments from the public, with only two people speaking in favor of the project.

The Columbia Falls Planning Board and Zoning Commission had unanimously voted to reject the development at a February meeting, a decision that followed unanimous votes in months prior to reject two versions of a project called River Highlands that was put forward by a separate developer. River Highlands was proposed for an area east of the Flathead River and River Road, and south of Highway 2, and could have resulted in hundreds of new units of housing. Those votes came as Flathead County continues to see a housing shortage, something the developer sought to highlight by commissioning a study from Patrick Barkey, an economist who is the director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. In a presentation last month to the council, Barkey had offered up analysis showing a deficit of 3,161 units of housing in Flathead County last year, and a need for the county to net 1,500 new units of housing of all types each year through 2032 in order to keep up with growth. The city’s growth policy, last updated in 2019, had called for 300 new units of housing by 2025 and 336 new units by 2026.

In light of the council’s decision this week, Location Ventures CEO and Founder Rishi Kapoor shared the following statement Tuesday: “While we are disappointed in the City Council’s decision to deny the project, we respect their decision. We are committed to this proposal, which is two years of intentional design and valuable stakeholder input in the making. Our next step is to take the time to reassess how and where our efforts can best serve the Columbia Falls community.”

Members of the council who voted in opposition to the development at Monday’s meeting cited traffic safety concerns, density concerns, and concerns about developing in an environmentally sensitive area. The last point was something Mayor Don Barnhart said he believed was inconsistent with the city’s growth policy.

During council discussion, Barnhart described one of the growth policy’s goals as “developing in an environmentally sensitive area should be accomplished so that those features are left in a relatively undisturbed state.”

“That’s an environmentally sensitive area over there. I’m a little bit concerned about that,” Barnhart said. “I think it’s a great subdivision design, I really do. There’s been a lot of work put into this. But I’m just really not comfortable with, one, the fact of where it’s at. Anywhere else, as long as we could get it hooked up to municipal service, I would champion.”  

The developer had proposed boring beneath the Flathead River to connect to city utilities, something that the city has expressed a preference for, but that members of the public had raised concerns about in relation to the river’s health. Location Ventures had also left open the possibility of connecting to utilities aboveground by attaching them to a nearby bridge.

Wetlands also exist on portions of the property, including a northern section for which the Army Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction, meaning any disturbance would have to be done with a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Frank Astor, the president of Location Ventures’ single family home division, had previously told the council that they had decided not to mitigate the wetlands on the property because they valued them as an amenity for residents. Astor had also said that Location Ventures was exploring the possibility of incorporating a wildlife corridor along the property’s western edge. The land is also 525 feet south of the Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management Area, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks determined that a high density development in the area of the development would have “significant negative impacts to wildlife on this parcel and the surrounding area.”

Barnhart also said he was concerned about the traffic setup, including with a nearby intersection on the east side of the bridge between River Road and Highway 2. The developer had proposed moving River Road further east to improve site distance at the intersection.

“I think it’s a safety problem. It does not say they would put in a stop light. And even if they did put in a stop light there’s going to be two accesses. The way people drive now, including with the way people drive in the summer, I cannot imagine what that’s going to look like if we had construction traffic, and more traffic coming off that side of the road, I think it would be extremely dangerous. I’ve responded to accidents in that area for over 30 years, so I know what I’m talking about,” Barnhart said, referencing his time as a volunteer firefighter in Columbia Falls.

The mayor also voiced concerns about a lack of pedestrian access from the development to the city via a nearby trail on the south side of the highway.

Councilor John Piper, who voted against the development, said that the pandemic’s effect on the city is still playing out and he doesn’t think “flooding the market with new housing,” is the right decision, but also suggested that the city could end up “with mansions, that nobody can afford” if the developer chooses to build without the zone change.

Councilor Jenny Lovering’s concerns were focused on issues that could be generated by traffic, particularly amid construction. Councilors Kelly Hamilton and Paula Robinson also voted against the development.

The two votes in favor of the development came from Mike Shepard and Darin Fisher.

Fisher talked about the potential for less dense development in the area.

It’s about whether it’s going to be million-dollar homes or more dense, more attainable housing,” Fisher said. “And that’s something that I struggle with when looking at this development and other developments that have been proposed in this area. I am OK with increasing density there. I think that if we get this denser housing that is a quarter mile from city services and about a mile from the downtown core, I think overall that’s a pretty good place for it.”

In his remarks, Shepard began by knocking down the suggestion that the city should develop to the west instead, saying that the land in that direction wasn’t for sale.  

“We’ve been dealing with the east side for now 19 years. I’m 74 years old. I’ll probably be dead, but somebody will have something built there sometime in the future, if not this one. It will come,” Shepard said.

He went on to talk about the possibility of the city becoming landlocked in its growth. “When you become stagnant, what happens? You die. So you just remember this, that I said at some point in the future there will be building there. Because a lot of what you folks have said to me are feelings and emotion, and very short on facts. And that’s all I have to say.”