Board of Adjustment Tables Discussion of Bigfork Hotel

Developers want to build the 64-room hotel on the corner of highways 83 and 35

By Micah Drew
A car drives by on a stretch of Montana Highway 35 outside Bigfork. Hunter D'Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Board of Adjustment at its meeting last week voted to table discussion over a new hotel proposed on the Swan Highway north of Bigfork, citing concerns over traffic and capacity of the local sewer district.

The application, submitted on behalf of Bigfork Hotel Group, is for a conditional use permit to build a 64-room hotel at 1247 Cala Way, just east of the intersection of Montana Highway 83 and Montana Highway 35. According the site plan, the hotel would be an economy-style Microtel by the Wyndham Hotel Management Group built on two acres in The Fort subdivision.

During an April public hearing the Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee (BLUAC) held on the conditional use permit, the committee voted to recommend the Board of Adjustment deny the permit.

Andy Evensen, with Evensen Engineering & Consulting Inc., spoke to the board on behalf of the applicant, addressing several concerns brought up during the BLUAC meeting, including the building’s aesthetic, traffic increases and the nearby sewer capacity.

“The project received unanimous approval of the features of the building. It really fit in with how the developers intended the development to look,” Evensen said, noting that the design met all parameters set by the subdivision’s HOA. “It will fit in well with how the other facilities in the subdivision will look that are directly impacted by the project.”

He was unable to address the other two primary issues with the same authority.

Five members of the public spoke in opposition to the hotel, zeroing in on the expected increase in traffic for the busy highway intersection as well as the impact to homeowners in the area who may have to bear increased costs for expanded water and sewer access for the business.

“I’m asking you to treat our resources as the precious and limited commodities that they are,” said Aaron Whitton, a hospitality consultant from Bigfork. “What is the actual demand for another hotel in Bigfork?

Doug White owns the convenience store across the street from the proposed hotel and told the board he has “understood the traffic pattern deeply for 30 years.”

“If there’s not a [dedicated turn] light put in on the highway intersection, you’re looking for people to take a chance to turn in front of something oncoming,” White said, adding that Highway 35 sees a lot of semitruck traffic. “To approve things, and I’m not against the hotel itself, the traffic has got to be figured out.”

The project application estimates the hotel would add more than 500 average daily vehicle trips — an 8% increase to traffic counts conducted in 2022 — to the road network, which White called a “woefully weak” estimate. No traffic impact study was done by the applicant, but a study originally done for The Fort indicated the entire subdivision was expected to generate just 364 daily trips at full buildout. Evensen, speaking for the hotel group, said they expected the service level of the intersection to be downgraded with the new project, but the approach permit that would be required from the Montana Department of Transportation would help mitigate the impacts.

Another major point of concern brought up during the meeting was the capacity of the Bigfork Water and Sewer District, which services the area.

The district submitted a comment to the board that the entire subdivision is still under development and has not yet been accepted into the district, and the hotel “may not be able to be adequately served with the supplied services.”

A district representative, Julie Spencer, told the board that several new projects in the area have “seriously impacted the lift station capacity” of the district already, and development isn’t expected to slow down.

“Right now, we have the capacity, but they may be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Spencer said.

Board member Roger Noble said that while the project is compatible with parcel’s B-3 “community business” zoning, his decision “comes down to the traffic.”

“They referenced an outdated traffic study, and I could not go forward with the traffic concerns,” he said, calling the application incomplete.

Board member Toby Liechti said that while MDT would likely work through the traffic concerns and require a new traffic study before giving the development an approach permit, it would make sense to have the applicant present additional information before moving forward with a vote.

The board voted unanimously to table discussion on the hotel until the developers provide additional information about how traffic management and an agreement with the water and sewer district.

“It’s not up to us to figure out the solution, the solutions have to come to us,” board chair Cal Dyck said. “The applicant has to prove that they have it figured to and right now with where we’re at … there should have been some potential solutions brought to us before we even started this application.”

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