The Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee (BLUAC) on July 27 will consider a proposed residential subdivision in Bigfork, marking the continuation of a bureaucratic process that took a contentious turn last month when the developers pulled the subdivision applications indefinitely during a public meeting that drew around 150 residents.
The proposed Northshore Woods subdivision — a project of engineering firm WGM Group and Wyoming-based developer Longbow Land Partners, LLC — would create 125 single-family homes on 105 acres of land between Montana Highway 35 and Bigfork Stage Road.
BLUAC at the July 27 meeting is set to hold public hearings on three separate proposals resubmitted by the developers: a zone change request, a planned unit development (PUD) proposal, and the preliminary plat for the first phase of the subdivision, which would include the construction of 51 single-family homes.
Currently, the site of the development is zoned RC-1, residential cluster, and R-1, suburban residential, which mandate a minimum of one lot per acre. The developers are requesting that the property be rezoned to R-2, one family limited residential, which mandates a minimum of one lot per 20,000 square feet, or approximately half an acre.
The developers have also requested a preliminary PUD, a tool that the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Department describes as “an overlay in zoned areas that creates flexibility for a developer and in return the public gets greater input in a project.”
According to Mike Brodie, senior project engineer with WGM Group, the PUD will allow the developers to create greater density, increasing the supply of homes in the area while maintaining the character of the neighborhood. Brodie called the PUD an “exchange” between Bigfork and the developers, who plan to use the PUD to modify zoning based on community input and provide transparency about their plans, and in exchange will ask the county to allow them to construct an additional 20 units. With the zone change and PUD, the developers would be permitted to build 125 units, as opposed to the 105 units permitted under the current zoning.
BLUAC will then decide whether or not to recommend approval of the first phase of Northshore Woods, which would include the creation and subdivision of 51 residential lots. The preliminary plat is already compliant with existing zoning, and could be approved even if BLUAC rejects the zone change and PUD. According to representatives from WGM Group, a second plat with an additional 54 lots could also be approved in the future on existing zoning.
County planning staff in their reviews of the zone change, PUD proposal and preliminary plat delivered mixed findings on the project, recommending a number of changes in order to address traffic, density and environmental concerns.
On the zone change, county staff said that the request “generally complies” with the Flathead County Growth Policy and is suitable for the area, yet outlined concerns about traffic.
Reviewing the PUD, county staff concluded that the zoning deviations “may not be in the public’s best interest,” citing concerns over increased traffic and environmental impacts. The staff report noted that the current proposal for Northshore Woods could increase traffic along Peaceful drive by 626% and along Bigfork Stage by 102%. Though the developers have offered to pave Bigfork Stage from the southern entry point to the ingress/egress of the subdivision, the staff report said that the proposed PUD “does not make adequate provisions for vehicular traffic.”
In a review of the preliminary plat for the first 51 homes, staff said that the development “appears to generally comply with the subdivision review criteria and design standards,” and that “identified impacts can be mitigated with conditions of approval.”
The development was met with formidable pushback by Bigfork residents who gathered last month in the basement of Bethany Lutheran Church to air their grievances with the project.
The June BLUAC meeting was cut short before the committee could consider Northshore Woods when Brodie pulled the files on behalf of the developer, postponing the hearings. Brodie told BLUAC that he and his colleagues had not received the report from the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Office until 2 p.m. that day, giving them inadequate time to review the office’s comments ahead of the 4 p.m. meeting.
In an email to the Beacon on June 30, Flathead County planner Zachary Moon said: “With BLUAC, our official office policy is to send out staff reports to the Advisory Committee 2 days before the date of their hearing. So it was not a delay, just standard operating procedures.”
After Brodie pulled the three applications at the June BLUAC meeting, Bigfork residents became increasingly agitated, shouting at the committee, county planning staff and Brodie, ultimately following Brodie out of the building and yelling expletives at him. Attendees at the meeting accused Brodie of attempting to “ruin” Bigfork and bemoaned new developments that are changing the face of the Flathead Valley.
While Brodie said he understands the community’s concerns and frustrations about new developments, he sees Northshore Woods as part of a larger strategy to solve the housing crisis that has upended the Flathead Valley since the onset of the pandemic. Though residents have criticized the Northshore Woods proposal as being too expensive for many families, Brodie and WGM Group said that increasing housing supply across economic brackets will moderate a harsh market that has largely hurt working class and low income families.
“Montana is in the midst of a housing crisis and there is a need for additional housing across all economic sectors,” representatives from WGM Group told the Beacon in a written statement. “Housing prices in the valley are directly related to supply across all income levels. If housing is not provided across all economic sectors, those with more wealth have an advantage and will ultimately buy lower priced houses and rebuild the house they envision meets their needs, thus taking a lower price home out of the market for others.”
According to a report published by the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Flathead County will need 14,803 additional housing units over the next 10 years in order to keep up with rising costs and population growth.
BLUAC will make a recommendation on the three agenda items, which will then be heard by the Flathead County Planning Board before they are sent to the Flathead County Board of Commissioners for a final vote.
The July 27 BLUAC meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. in the basement of Bethany Lutheran Church, 8559 Montana Highway 35 in Bigfork.
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