Council OKs homes, but not cabins, in development east of river

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The proposed site for the Benches subdivision.

The Columbia Falls City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve the preliminary plat for a new major subdivision east of the Flathead River just outside Columbia Falls, but denied a Planned Unit Development that would have also allowed the construction of 30 resort rental cabins on the same property.

Whitefish developer Jim McIntyre, doing business as Prairie Dog Development LLC, was proposing to build 48 single family homes and 30 resort cabins on 55.4 acres of land at 7073 Highway 2 West in a project called “The Benches.”

After hearing more than a dozen citizens speak in strong opposition to the development, the council took issue with several items in the PUD Findings of Fact Report and voted to deny the commercial aspect of the proposal in a meeting that lasted nearly four hours.

Among the items that concerned those who spoke against the development was the proposed 25-foot setback between the proposed rental cabins and the wetlands area of the property. Courtney Stone, who proposed a setback of 100 feet or more, called the proposed 25-foot setback nothing more than “lip service,” while Shirley Rogers referred to the setback as “shoot from the hip” number.

Luci Yeats warned the council that any decision made about the property would forever shape the future of development on the east side of the river.

“This a keystone property. The decision made on this property will set a precedent for the rest of the future development along Highway 2,” Yeats said. “Now is the time to plan. What do we want the gateway to Glacier Park to look like?”

Other concerns included a farmer who was worried about how the two planned wells for the development would affect the water table in the area and numerous concerns over the impact on local wildlife.

“The subdivision report states that the property is currently vacant. I disagree. This property is teeming with life, just not the type of life the developers are prone to notice,” Rogers told the council. “We need to either protect our natural heritage and wildlands or we will lose them forever. Once they are gone, we can never get them back.”

After the public concluded their comments, many of the City Council members took issue with items in the PUD Findings of Fact Report, including the inclusion of the 30 rental cabins in an area designated for housing.

“You can call it whatever you want. In my mind, this is a planned commercial enterprise in a residential area,” councilman Doug Karper said.

Mayor Barnhart was concerned with the impact of 48 septic systems, saying “if we allow these septic systems, we are going to regret it in the end.”

Councilman Darin Fisher amended the document to show that the rental cabins would create a state of overcrowding in the area.

While the council voted unanimously to deny the PUD request, it also voted unanimously to approve the preliminary plat for the 48 single-family homes, with a list of 29 conditions which must be met by the developer before the project can be completed, including stipulations that the water and sewer systems for the project must be reviewed and approved by the County Health Department and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and that the developer must accept the recommendations of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

While developer McIntyre admits that the denial of the PUD might change some of his plans for the property, he says he is still looking forward to helping provide more housing for the area.

“I haven’t decided exactly what I want to do with it now. I will need to meet with the engineers and planners and come up with alternatives. I wasn’t surprised with the council’s decision. It was in accordance with the laws and zoning in the area,” he said Tuesday morning. “It was a contentious meeting, but I believe the city council made the correct decision. We want to build a subdivision for people who live and work in the Flathead Valley. These aren’t supposed to be second or third homes, they are for people who want to live and raise their families here.”

In other action Monday, the City Council approved the appointment of City Manager Susan Nicosia to the county Solid Waste Board and also approved the renewal of her contract as City Manager with an annual salary of $87,983 through June 2020.

The council also posted notice of several public hearings at the Oct. 15 Planning Board meeting, including one on the proposed building of a 12-unit condominium complex in the Hilltop Homes subdivision, one by the Highline Apartments to move the construction of Building E into phase two of the project and one for Weyerhaeuser to change the zoning of the former Plum Creek corporate office to allow it to be used as a medical office facility.

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