County Planning Board Approves 105-lot Subdivision Near Glacier High School

Community members voiced concerns over influx of students into West Valley School District

By Micah Drew
Flathead County Courthouse on Main Street in Kalispell pictured May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Planning Board voted 6-2 to send a positive recommendation for a 123-acre subdivision in West Valley to the Flathead County commissioners.

Brent Johnson and Gilbert Markum are proposing to build the 105-lot Johnson Ranch Subdivision along Stillwater Road near Glacier High School, where they say the larger residential lot sizes will be a welcome departure from the higher-density projects coming online in Kalispell.

“One reason we took this on was because what we see happening in the Valley is a lot of high-density housing going into the city, and even down Stillwater towards Four Mile, you’re getting five-, six-, seven-, eight-thousand-square-foot-lots,” said Markum, whose Pennsylvania-based LLC, Allmark Holdings, owns the tract of property. “We felt that the Valley needed some proper-sized lots.”

The Jan. 10 meeting drew comments from several community members concerned about the influx of students that another development would bring to the West Valley School District, as well as over the decision by developers to pay cash-in-lieu of parkland, an option allowed by county zoning regulations.

“Because this is a county subdivision, there will be no sidewalks. It will be similar to [nearby subdivision] Stillwater Estates, where all the kids play in the road,” said Erica Wirtala, a member of the West Valley Land Use Advisory Committee, which unanimously approved the subdivision at an earlier meeting. “All the people that walk their dogs, walk in the road. All the people that are just out running for a jog, or playing stick hockey, they’re doing that in the road. I felt very strongly that this was not a good candidate for cash-in-lieu of parkland.”

County regulations require developers to set aside 5% of a property for dedicated parkland, which would be just over 6 acres of the Johnson Ranch property. The applicants doubled down on their intent to pay cash instead, and several community members indicated the larger lot size and proximity to Glacier High School’s campus, which boasts several large athletic fields, as justification.

“I’ve actually lived in Stillwater estates. It has a park, it doesn’t get used,” said Josh Johnson, who currently lives on Stillwater Road near the proposed development. “That money could have gotten somewhere better.”

Other members of the public framed their opposition to the development around the overcrowding in the West Valley School District, which has seen a 40% enrollment increase in the last decade, pushing the student enrollment to 763 — a number expected to continue growing as housing developments crop up north of Kalispell.

“I think a lot of the problem with this school is the city of Kalispell’s high-density subdivisions,” board chair Jeff Larsen said. “The city wants to get all this high-density development to help bring down housing costs, I get that, but it’s kind of a tough thing to punish these guys coming in with a subdivision that meets the zoning regulations and put it all on them to solve the school problem.”

“It’s tough right now with things being so expensive, but people are going to have to do something to fund the school,” he added.

County staff indicated in their report that the subdivision, which sits right on the edge of Kalispell city limits, would be a candidate for annexation into the city in the next few years, according to the city’s growth policy, adding that if the property is annexed before a development is approved by the county there is a greater likelihood of it ending up as a higher-density development than what is currently on the table.

The planning board voted 6-2 in favor of the proposed subdivision with Virginia Taylor and Michael Kopitzke opposed. The development will next be heard by the Flathead County commissioners at a yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing.  

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