Columbia Falls delays decision on 455-unit complex | Local News

Overcrowding at Columbia Falls City Hall forced the planning board and zoning commission to postpone a meeting on a 455-unit subdivision on Tuesday.

More than 100 people turned up for the meeting, prompting the council to reschedule it for August 9 at a different location. The location of the August meeting has not yet been determined.

The overwhelming turnout came in response to a proposal by developer James Barnett for a rezoning map and planned unit development along River Road, south of US Highway 2 and east of the bridge of the Flathead River.

Barnett previously proposed a controversial project known as the Mountain Gateway at the foot of Big Mountain Road in Whitefish. Whitefish City Council rejected the proposal in February.

Now Barnett is looking to build 455 units on 49.1 acres, split between 65 attached single-family homes, 390 apartments and 10 townhouses dedicated to the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust.

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All units would be long term rentals.

Barnett proposed to rezone the parcel from CR-3 (Single Family Residential) to CR-4 (Urban Residential). The project density would be 9.2 units per acre.

The property had already been approved as a 151-unit subdivision in 2008 before the housing market crashed.

Part of the new proposal includes 21.5 acres of parkland and open space, as well as a 300 foot setback from the Flathead River.

The developer also proposed moving River Road to the east of the property and adding a stoplight at the intersection with U.S. Highway 2.

The River Highlands subdivision proposal received considerable community response, including members of the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association citizens’ group.

The organization’s president, Shirley Folkwein, listed concerns about density, traffic and environmental impacts, among other issues.

“We were very pleased last night with the strong turnout,” Folkwein said on Wednesday.

“One of the main concerns is that it doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood at all,” she said. “It’s still a rural area.”

Folkwein was concerned about the impacts the development might have on wildlife that uses the area as a corridor, as well as potential damage from drilling under the Flathead River to place water and sewer lines to service the development.

“We are aware of other pipelines, lines that have broken,” Folkwein said. “It happens.”

Folkwein also raised questions about traffic, affordability and safety surrounding the development.

“We would like people to know that we are not opposed to development,” Folkwein said of UFNA. “…We support sensible development and do not regard it as sensible development.”

Barnett, on the other hand, believes the area is ripe for development like River Highlands.

He pointed out that the 2019 Columbia Falls Growth Policy designates the property as an urban residential area.

Adding 455 units, Barnett explained, would not happen overnight. The development would develop in phases depending on demand, he said.

But approving all 455 units at once is a more efficient way to provide housing stock than dividing the property into smaller projects requiring individual approval, Barnett added.

He said this desire to provide housing to the community was what drove the project, and he pointed to the use of long-term rentals as evidence of this commitment on the part of the development team.

“We believe that by providing long-term rentals instead of the previously approved subdivision with homes that most people cannot afford, it contributes to the housing crisis for years and years to come,” Barnett said.

He also explained that drilling under the Flathead River is a common practice employed by many public works departments.

“It’s pretty common, really,” agreed Columbia Falls Public Works Director Chris Hanley. “It’s a very safe procedure, actually.”

Hanley pointed to a similar project underway under the Clark Fork River in St. Regis, and he said he supports putting utility lines under the Flathead River.

Barnett also said he doesn’t think safety will be a concern for the development, as the plans all go through the fire marshal.

“They are probably some of the safest buildings for fires,” he said.

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