Citing concerns about density and traffic in the surrounding area, the Flathead County Planning Board last week voted against recommending the commissioners approve a zone change request from a Florida-based developer for a parcel of land east of the Flathead River.
Location Acquisitions, which is affiliated with Rishi Kapoor, the CEO of Gables-Florida-based real estate development company Location Ventures, is seeking a zone change from suburban agricultural (SAG-10) to suburban residential (R-1), which would make the 12.44-acre piece of land north of the Big Sky Water Park eligible to be developed at a density of one unit per acre. The current zoning allows for development on a scale of one unit per 10 acres.
Kapoor’s company Location Ventures was behind the 7030 Highway 2 Residences project, which had sought approval for plans to build 180 units of housing on 22.5 acres east of the Flathead River near Columbia Falls. The Columbia Falls City Council voted in April to reject that project. The property recently brought before the county planning board is located nearby at 7240 Highway 2 East, and in application materials the developer said that the intention is to use the land for single-family residences.
Public comments in opposition to the zone change described concerns about the proximity of the property to wildlife management areas, wetlands, and the Flathead River, as well as traffic-related safety concerns.
The planning board tabled the group’s zone change at a June meeting after a member of the public named Nicole Bond, who described herself as an adjacent landowner with American Institute of Certified Planners (ACIP) credentialing, highlighted what she believed to be inaccuracies in the county planning staff report on the zone change request.
Board members at the time said they had not seen that comment prior to the start of the meeting, and ultimately opted to postpone their decision to consider Bond’s analysis, including the claim that staff had inaccurately characterized the property’s location in relation to the city of Columbia Falls’ interlocal agreement boundary.
At the board’s July 12 meeting, Board Chair Jeff Larsen started off the discussion by giving county planning staff a chance to respond to some of those claims. The conclusion from staff after addressing some of the critiques from Bond was that they were comfortable with the findings of fact they had presented to the board. Staff had found that the proposed zone change was in compliance with the Flathead Count Growth Policy, and generally found it to comply with review criteria used by the county.
On the question of the property’s proximity to the interlocal agreement boundaries, staff said it is within a quarter mile. Still, at least one member of the board, Greg Stevens, seemed to think that the use of the word “adjacent” in a report inaccurately conveyed the proximity of the land, to which staff pointed out that adjacent means nearby, and adjoining means touching. Stevens then joked that he should have brought his Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.
Nevertheless, the board, on a motion brought forward by Larsen, voted to change the word “adjacent” to “nearby,” in the findings of fact presented in the staff report.
From there, board member Gary Votapka brought forward a motion to send a negative recommendation to the county commissioners.
Votapka said he rejected accusations from the public that this was leapfrog development.
“The big thing that was negative to me, was really that intersection problem,” Votapka said.
“I felt that a higher density kind of a use other than agriculture pulling out onto that highway on a much more frequent basis is just not a good idea for what’s being discussed here.”
Board member Buck Breckenridge said he agreed with much of what Votapka had said, and that he was especially concerned with how this would affect the safety of the nearby intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and Montana Highway 206.
“I realize it would be 12 houses, but you’re getting a wedging in of precedent in an area for zoning that allows for density in an area that it doesn’t seem like it’s a good fit,” Breckenridge said.
In explaining his position on the request, Stevens mentioned the pressure that the board is under due to growth in the county and the cost of housing, and described how he believes that increasing the housing stock will reduce the cost of housing. Still, Stevens ultimately voted with the rest of the board in support of forwarding a negative recommendation to the county commissioners.
Some board members, including the chair, Larsen, said they struggled to determine how they should vote. In the case of Sandra Nogal, there was little equivocating about how she felt about the request.
“I’m more suspicious. I think it’s a wedge to open the door to develop that kind of density in that area and I can’t go along with it. I did some looking up on Location Acquisitions, did some studying on the Kapoors, and SAG-5 would be fine, but not R-1,” Nogal said.
Just days before the board’s June meeting, the Miami Herald newspaper reported that Rishi Kapoor, the CEO of Location Ventures, was under investigation by the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), with the two agencies looking into his business dealings in South Florida, including payments to Miami Mayor Francis Suarez for consulting work. At the time, the Herald noted that neither Kapoor nor any other Location Ventures executives had been accused by authorities of wrongdoing.
On July 14, the Herald published a new story about Kapoor, which details a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court last week, which named Kapoor, and one of his other companies, Patriots United LLC, as defendants in a breach-of-contract suit brought by three companies controlled by two investors who say that Kapoor owes them $25 million. The story also reports, citing anonymous sources, that Location Ventures has downsized, laying off about 10 employees, with “a handful” of others deciding to leave the company. The Herald Story also says a former chief financial officer, Greg Brooks, filed a legal motion last week to collect $150,000 in back pay and other compensation from Location Ventures, saying that the company had violated a settlement agreement requiring full payment by mid-June.
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