City-County planning board approves Ruis apartments; now onto Columbia Falls council

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Crews from compass construction tear down the Davall Building in this file photo. Developer Mick Ruis wants to build an apartment building on the site.

The Columbia Falls city-county planning and zoning board unanimously approved a plan for new apartment building in downtown Columbia Falls Tuesday night after a public hearing on the project.

Developer Mick Ruis submitted plans for an 18-unit residential building at 35 Fifth Street — the site of the former Davall Building.

Although Ruis did not attend the meeting, his representatives made several requests for the development. The project needs variances to city zoning regulations.

In the downtown business district, residences are typically not allowed on the first floor of any structure. Also, the maximum height of buildings in the area is 35 feet, but Ruis’s building would have a sloped lodge-style roof and would measure 40.5 feet.

Third, the city requires a minimum of two acres for residence structures, which would take up at least a whole city block, but city planner Eric Mulcahy said there are many smaller downtown structures throughout the Flathead that could serve as example for Ruis’s apartments.

Ruis’s building would also have to comply with architectural standards that apply to structures 10,000 square feet or larger. For instance, it will have to have windows and doors on all sides and use visually interesting exterior texture.

Mulcahy noted that Ruis has complied with all regulations imposed thus far, but the biggest issue that the zoning board discussed was the building’s parking plan. The company has set aside space for 18 parking spots, one for each residential unit, though the configuration of parking could change to increase the number of spaces.

Mulcahy recommended approval of the zoning requests with 15 conditions, mostly related to the acreage, lighting, emergency response access, and screening of air conditioners and dumpsters.

Board member Mike Shepard was particularly concerned about the limited parking, suggesting that each unit would require at least two spots. Mulcahy said that about 12 nearby street parking spots would likely be available, but not reserved for residents.

Board members Steve Duffy and Sue Haverfield raised concerns about Americans with Disability Act-compliant facilities; Ruis’s architect Aaron Wallace noted that the units will be adjusted based on demand.

Columbia Falls resident Robert Smith was wary about the use of first-floor space as residential.

“You need to think long and hard about the commercial aspect of that,” he said, noting that the city has been working to revitalize business in downtown.

Resident Martha Castle said she’d also like to see businesses on First Street and Second Street to reduce the demand for parking, or would prefer to see residents buy the units in Ruis’s building so they have a more vested interest in upkeep.

Mulcahy noted that if the first floor was converted to offices or retail, the need for more parking spaces would actually increase by two or threefold, and that Ruis had received no inquiries from retail store owners.

“If the first floor is commercial, the whole project goes away,” Wallace said.

Boardmember Steve Duffy reminded the board that the city is growing fast and claimed it will reach a population of 10,000 in the blink of an eye; and Shepard noted that with the need for uptown businesses on Nucleus Avenue to be unique and attention-grabbing, there’s not yet an impetus for all buildings to have first floor commercial space.

In roll-call votes, the board unanimously approved Mulcahy’s report and recommendations and Ruis’s proposal. The proposal will come before the city council at its Aug. 7 meeting at 7 p.m. Council has the ultimate say on the project.

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