Real Estate

County Planning Board Postpones Decision on Florida-based Developer’s Zone Change Request

The request from Location Ventures is for a 12.44-acre parcel north of the Big Sky Water Park, adjacent to a previously rejected development property along the Flathead River

By Mike Kordenbrock
A map showing a parcel at 7240 Highway 2 East, with proposed a zoning change request from SAG-10 (Suburban Agricultural) to R-1 (Suburban Residential). Courtesy image

The Flathead County Planning Board on Wednesday night opted to postpone a decision on a zone change request by the same developer involved in a high-profile project for an area east of the Flathead River that was rejected in April by the Columbia Falls City Council.

The zone change request was made by Location Acquisitions, the Coral Gables, Florida-based real estate development company behind the rejected 7030 Highway 2 Residences project, which sought to build 180 units of housing on 22.5 acres east of the Flathead River near Columbia Falls.

The zone change request that went before the planning board Wednesday night is for a separate property east of the previously rejected development property, with this one involving 12.44 acres of land north of the Big Sky Water Park, at 7240 Highway 2 East near its intersection with Montana Highway 206. The zone change, which would have the property go from suburban agricultural (SAG-10) to suburban residential (R-1) would go from an allowable density of one unit per 10 acres to one unit per acre.

Presenting on behalf of Location Ventures was Mark Rohweder, a civil engineer with KLJ Engineering. Rohweder presented some data on housing deficits in the county as determined by a University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) study commissioned by the developer. Rohweder said there are three structures on the property right now, including a single-family home, and that north of the property is a pasture. He told the board that a wetland delineation had been done and it was determined that the parcel was all deemed “upland,” and that the Army Corps of Engineers had agreed with their report.

The developer has said in application materials that it intends to use the land for single-family residences, and that it will allow for “landowners to make use of the value of the land and location to meet market demand for housing in the Flathead Valley due to significant population growth.”

The planning board decision came about four days after the Miami Herald newspaper published a story reporting that both the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had opened investigations into Location Ventures CEO Rishi Kapoor’s business dealings in South Florida, including payments made to Miami Mayor Francis Suarez for consulting work. Suarez recently announced a bid to become the Republican nominee for president. In addition to the payments to Suarez, the Miami Herald reports that the SEC is looking into “whether Kapoor and his company were selling investment contracts without registering them as securities, misrepresenting potential profits to investors or misappropriating funds for personal expenses.” The Herald story says that investigation has been going since early this year, and notes that neither Kapoor nor any other Location Ventures executives have been accused by authorities of wrongdoing.

The reported existence of those investigations was not mentioned at Wednesday night’s meeting; instead, the county planning board seemed persuaded to delay a decision by an adjacent property owner’s comment arguing there were inaccuracies in the county planning staff report for the project.

County planning staff found the proposed zone change to be in compliance with the Flathead County Growth Policy, and generally found it to comply with review criteria used by the county. The staff report summarized public comments received as in opposition to the zone change, and concerned about the proximity of the property to wildlife management areas, wetlands, and the Flathead River, as well as traffic-related safety concerns.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks submitted comment saying that the parcel is part of an agricultural area adjacent to the Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management Area, and that adjacent agricultural areas provide habitat to wildlife including deer, elk, bears, amphibians and migratory birds. “The subject 12-acre parcel of this proposal is along the eastern periphery of this corridor, and its development alone will not likely result in appreciable impacts to wildlife movement across this broader area.”

The decision to delay was motivated by the first public comment delivered Wednesday night by Nicole Bond, who described herself as an adjacent landowner who is a planner by trade with American Institute of Certified Planners (ACIP) credentialing, but who is no longer practicing.

Bond presented the board with a packet of information, which she said she had attempted to email twice earlier that day, but which the board said they had not received prior to the meeting. She described the packet as pointing out inaccuracies in the county planning staff report, and specified that some of those inaccuracies pertain to the property’s location in relation to the city of Columbia Falls’ interlocal agreement boundary, something Bond said had changed because the project’s boundary had changed after a previous version the county had received was resubmitted.

With a change in boundary, Bond said that the project was no longer adjacent to that boundary area, which she claimed was relevant because the proposed zoning would allow for similar uses to adjacent cities.

One board member, Greg Stevens, later said that he didn’t believe some of the critiques Bond pointed out were material to the decision at hand and described them as “more in the order of housekeeping,” but Board Chair Jeff Larson was persuaded.

“From my perspective, I kind of like to table (it), because it gives me a chance to really study,” Larson said. “It’s difficult when you have six projects and you’re trying to read something in two minutes and then trying to maybe address findings, because I need to sit down and think about what the finding says and look at the information we have. And Nicole put it together, it looks like, a pretty nice job here, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.” 

The vote to table the agenda item was unanimous, and the board specified that it had closed the public hearing and would take no further comment or information on the project ahead of its next meeting in July.

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