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Decision on KM Ranch Road development pushed after hours of public comment

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | September 14, 2022 1:00 AM

Representatives of a potential development on a 155-acre chunk of property on KM Ranch Road say it would provide needed housing for the Flathead Valley. But neighbors of the project say it’s not responsible growth to bring in more than 200 housing units to the area.

Both sides presented their perspectives to the Flathead County Planning Board on Wednesday night, with most of the commenters asking the board to deny a zone change request for the property that sits just north of the county landfill boarding U.S. 93.

Speakers also raised concerns about the scope of potential development on the property, increasing traffic in the area, impacts on the environment and wildlife, adding students to already full schools, losing forestland, stretching public safety resources further and the change development on the property could have to the character of the neighborhood.

Montarise Developments, LLC is requesting a zone change for three parcels of land located on the north side of KM Ranch Road just north of the county landfill. Though the issue before the board was only a zone change, Montarise representatives spoke about further plans involving 268 housing units and 20 acres set for commercial use.

Glenn Edwards, vice president of Montarise, said the company aims to address the shortage of housing in the Flathead Valley.

“The people before us accepted change to make a place for us,” he said. “There’s only minimal workforce housing available now and we want to be part of the solution for that.”

Speaking against the proposal during public comment, Ron Bruce told the planning board that the “real Montana is a way of life that must be protected.”

“Growth is inevitable, but growth without proper planning is irresponsible,” Bruce said. “There isn’t a crisis for those who live here — it’s a crisis for those who live elsewhere.”

After hearing about two hours of public comment and receiving around 100 written comments, the planning board on Wednesday voted to push a decision on the request until its Oct. 12 meeting.

Roughly 200 people were in attendance at the meeting held at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. About 45 people spoke during the meeting with all of the comments against the request.

Board Chair Jeff Larson said that while he realized people are anxious for a decision the prudent step would be to delay.

“We owe it to all the people who gave us comments to consider those,” he said. “It doesn’t do it justice to the effort that people put in to make comments if we don't consider those.”

The request is to change the zoning from SAG-5 suburban agricultural to R-1 suburban residential, which would reduce the minimum lot size from 5 acres to 1 acre. Under current zoning, the Montarise property could be developed with about 30 lots, but following the zone change that would move to about 150 lots.

Any decision by the planning board is a recommendation that eventually is forwarded to the county commissioners for a decision.

WHILE MONTARISE has submitted applications to the county for a preliminary plat and planned unit development, those applications are incomplete and therefore have not been scheduled to go before the planning board. They do show what Montarise is likely planning.

Plans outline 135 acres as designated for housing with 92 single-family units and 176 multi-family units. The documents say that about 44 acres would be set aside for open space and parks.

For the three commercial lots, one would be set aside for a church or school, another for a business park and the third would be for a 73-unit RV park located along U.S. 93.

Outlining the plan, Edwards said Montarise wants to create quality housing in a development that would focus on creating pocket neighborhoods with varying types of housing clustered together. He said the company plans to focus on creating condominiums for ownership, along with varying sizes of single-family homes, that allow owners to move into larger housing while remaining in the same neighborhood.

Seemingly addressing some who said if the property were to change they’d rather see 5-acre and 10-acre parcels like in surrounding areas, Edwards said the overall density of the project is two units per acre.

“Any less than that and it would disregard the need for affordable housing,” he said. “If more units are not brought to the market it will eventually necessitate even more density in such development in the future. Montarise can be part of the solution to provide housing.”

Mark Liechti, with APEC Engineering which represents the developer, told the planning board that the project has been well-designed and is centrally located between the valley’s cities. He too said that the project would provide a necessary mix of housing types that many say is needed, but don’t want in their own backyard.

“They say ‘we need this, just not here,’” he said.

DURING PUBLIC comment, Julie Rommel, a member of Friends for Responsible Rural Growth a group that formed in opposition to the proposal, listed off many of the concerns raised by the other speakers at the meeting saying that the project is a threat to the quality of life here and provides zero community benefit.

“Our opposition is so much more than what is in our backyard,” she said.

Amy Esmay said she worries about the impact on schools that are already crowded.

“This will permanently disfigure Whitefish,” she said.

Joe DeCree said a former plan for the property with about 55 lots would have been preferable.

“Notice there are no 20-something kids in here looking for a starter home,” he said, referencing the crowd. “We do need housing in the county, but this isn’t it.”

Jenna Anderson called it a “fallacy” to say that adding more houses will bring down real estate prices creating affordable housing.

“Flathead County does not need to build a shiny new house for everyone that comes here,” she said.

Heather Hodges, like several other speakers, told the planning board that the decision before them is broader than one development.

“This will fundamentally affect everyone that wishes to preserve the Flathead Valley for the future,” she said.