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High-density housing, water lines drilled under Flathead River of great concern

by Shirley Folkwein
| July 6, 2022 1:00 AM

The recent passing of Bill Shaw brings to mind Bill being the last farmer to put up hay from the 49 acres along River Road east of Columbia Falls. That open field now is destined to become high-density, three-story apartment buildings and row houses for 1,200 residents within the Columbia Falls city limits.

The Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association (UFNA) is opposed to this proposal as submitted by James Barnett, who also is building similar apartment structures at the Silverbrook subdivision north of Kalispell along Highway 93 and Church Drive. That is what the open space along the Flathead River will look like if the Columbia Falls Planning Board recommends approval July 12 and the City Council approves the River Highlands development on August 1.

The UFNA is not opposed to development — our mission statement supports “sensible development.” This is not sensible.

For more information, visit the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association's Facebook page or email upperflatheadna@gmail.com for a copy of our July newsletter.

River Highlands does not fit the character of the neighborhood. Reviewing the size of properties in the neighborhood east of the Flathead River reveals a density of about .125 units per acre, a far cry from the nine units per acre in the developer's proposal. There is still farming in the neighborhood.

Drilling sewer and water lines under the Flathead River is part of the developer's plan to hook into the city's system beginning at Third Avenue East, running along the south side of Highway 2, through the Teakettle fishing access/boat ramp area, under the river and up to a point near the existing Highway 2-River Road intersection. The developer would cover costs of the initial installation. Although permitting is required, this could potentially impact downstream water quality for years. Of great concern is the riverbed “scouring” that takes place on riverbeds especially during spring run-off when the water volume is greatest, possibly damaging buried sewer and water lines.

Don’t be misled by the mention of a traffic light on Highway 2. This proposal does not guarantee a traffic light at the new River Road-Highway 2 intersection 300 feet east of the bridge. It only suggests a “signal warrant study” be conducted after the development has been approved and build out nearing completion (4-10 years). Meanwhile, River Highlands apartments will add a minimum of 682 vehicles (1.5 parking spaces x 455 units) onto River Road, which already has too much traffic. There are no alternate routes out of the development.

Those of us who live here and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks know this open field is abundant in whitetail deer, elk, grizzly and black bear, mountain lion and other wildlife passing through. Smaller mammals and numerous birds, including raptors and songbirds, are present also. The property serves as habitat for these animals and is an important corridor as they travel from the south, northward to the new Bad Rock Canyon Wildlife Management Area less than a quarter-mile away.

Annexation to Columbia Falls will bring its own issues for current city residents with a drain on resources such as police and fire protection, water and sewer availability and street maintenance including snow removal. Consider the cumulative effect of all the current and future housing developments immediately east of the Flathead River including 22 acres along Highway 2 just purchased by an out-of-state developer.

The Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association urges residents of Columbia Falls and surrounding rural areas to give thoughtful consideration to this proposal and get involved in the decision-making process. See our newsletter on Facebook or email a request for the newsletter at the above address for more information.

Shirley Folkwein is the President of the Upper Flathead Neighborhood Association.

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