The Flathead County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted unanimously to deny approval of a preliminary plat for the first phase of the Northshore Woods subdivision in Bigfork.
The subdivision proposal — which has faced pushback from community groups and approval boards as it has moved through the county’s development approval process — includes the construction of 125 single-family homes on 105 acres of land between Montana Highway 35 and Bigfork Stage. The commissioners on Tuesday voted on only the first phase of the Northshore Woods development, which proposed the construction of 51 single-family homes.
Northshore Woods was brought to the county by engineering firm WGM Group on behalf of Longbow Land Partners, LLC, a Wyoming-based developer.
In denying the preliminary plat, the county commissioners cited concerns about traffic and argued that the developer’s plans for the future of the project were unclear.
“It’s really difficult for me to approve something that is so hard to anticipate,” Commissioner Pam Holmquist said before the board’s vote. “How do you assess the impacts when you know that it’s not 51 lots going forward, it’s actually going to be closer to 100 or more lots? How does that affect the intersections and the roads and fire and all of the other stuff we have to look at?”
Flathead County planner Zachary Moon presented a staff report to the commissioners, which found that the subdivision would have a minimal impact on surface waters, vegetation, wildlife and wildlife habitat, agriculture, water and wastewater, dust and air quality and emergency services. The staff report also found that impacts on stormwater runoff, solid waste disposal, local schools, mail delivery, parks and recreation facilities would be acceptable.
Road safety was the only area of concern raised in the staff report. One finding, which was amended by the Flathead County Planning Board, stated that the development “could have a negative impact on Peaceful Drive” due to one subdivision access point being located at Peaceful Drive and Highway 35. The finding indicated that public testimony raised a safety concern and that no crash analysis data for the intersection of Peaceful Drive and Highway 35 had been provided.
Though the staff report indicated that the subdivision proposal appeared to mitigate concerns along Bigfork Stage, where traffic was predicted to increase by 40%, the commissioners voted to amend the findings to reflect concerns about the increase in traffic.
In a unanimous vote, the commissioners amended the report to state, “Even though the developer would be required to pave 1,192 feet of Bigfork Stage and receive an updated approach permit from the County Road and Bridge Department, this proposal could have a negative impact on Bigfork Stage because it would increase traffic along this section of Bigfork Stage by 40%.”
Commissioner Randy Brodehl raised concerns about potential evacuations and emergency responder access in case of an emergency.
“I’ve got 38 years in the fire service, many years of doing wildland firefighting,” Brodehl said. “Access is critical during an emergency. I don’t think Bigfork Stage Road provides that as it currently is.”
The commissioners also approved an amendment to the staff report that stated that “Peaceful Drive may not provide for adequate emergency egress and first responders’ ingress because public testimony showed a concern of a hazard along the existing access to the subject property and the secondary access road, Bigfork Stage.”
County staff told the commissioners that most of Peaceful Drive meets county road standards, but that Bigfork Stage does not, as it is currently too narrow. Highway 35 is a state highway, and improvements to facilitate safety would need to be made by the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT).
The commissioners approved an additional finding that stated that “it may be possible to mitigate traffic concerns on Peaceful Drive, Bigfork Stage and Highway 35 with the addition of conditions as recommended by MDOT and Flathead County Road and Bridge Department.”
Despite discussing possible traffic mitigation strategies at length, the commissioners voted to deny approval of the preliminary plat, citing what they described as a lack of clarity about future plans from the developer.
“They talk about phasing, yet they didn’t put in a phasing application. I don’t know that it’s ready for prime time at this time. I’m really struggling with that,” Holmquist said.
The commissioners also expressed confusion about the development given that some infrastructure analysis relied on the preliminary 51 homes, while other elements relied on the total 125-home proposal.
“Trying to interpret that and compare it to a 51-lot subdivision, plus a potential [Planned Unit Development], it’s made it very difficult for me to put this into a packet that makes sense to read from one end to the other,” Brodehl said, adding that it would have made more sense to pull the proposal entirely and ask the developer to bring it to the county again as a 51-home development, and not as a phased project.
“It’s making it very difficult for me to move ahead with approval on this,” he said.
Commissioner Brad Abell concurred with Holmquist and Brodehl.
The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the developer’s request for a zone change on Nov. 9 at 11 a.m. and on the requested Planned Unit Development on Nov. 21 at 10:45 a.m.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.