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Neighbors, agencies voice concerns about proposed development

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | August 9, 2020 1:00 AM

A proposed new housing development east of Kalispell is expected to be a major topic of discussion at Wednesday’s Flathead County Planning Board meeting.

Located west of Columbia Falls Stage Road and just north of Kingfisher Lane, the Rolling Acres Subdivision as proposed by Unique Realty Developer Inc. would include 77 lots on 114 acres served by shared wells, individual septic systems, and a community sand-mound septic system.

The housing development would be the 17th to be built along Columbia Falls Stage Road since 1995, but would be located in close proximity to a pair of conservation easements meant to protect riparian habitat along the Flathead River, drawing concern from local residents.

Dr. Mark Johnston, a founding member of the nonprofit Fairview Neighborhood Association, which was recently formed in opposition to the subdivision, said the proposed development raises a number of concerns among his group and others.

“This project will take away river corridor land that is probably among the most sensitive for wildlife and water issues. It takes an area that is prime farmland and will turn it under,” he said. “It’s a significant loss no matter how you look at it.”

Johnston, whose family has donated more than 700 acres of land to the conservation easement located directly north of the proposed subdivision, said he and his group are hoping to educate the public about their concerns via a new website, a mail campaign and direct contact, and have hired land-use and hydrology experts to provide their own assessments of the project.

“We wanted to make sure we have facts and that we can truly understand the application. We want the planner to look at the quality of the application and help us find deficiencies, of which we think there are a great number,” he said. “It’s a concern to us that the project has even made it this far, but it has.”

Johnston and his group are not alone in their trepidations. According to the county Planning and Zoning Office’s staff report, the county has received letters from several local groups detailing their concerns about the project.

The Flathead Conservation District, which says it will be commenting during Wednesday’s public hearing, is particularly concerned about the loss of prime farmland as well as the potential for pollution to the area.

“Some of the area proposed for subdivision is identified as prime farmland (non-irrigated) and prime farmland if irrigated. These farmlands are not plentiful and account for approximately only 1 percent of total acreage in the county and are concentrated in the Creston area. According to census data, farmable acreage and food production are decreasing in Flathead County. If developed it will result in a permanent loss of important agricultural land and may have future impacts on the county’s food security and access to locally produced crops,” the Conservation District said in a letter dated July 23. “The location of the proposed development also poses potential, long-term impacts to the Flathead River from nonpoint source pollution. As reported in the Flathead Lake Watershed Restoration Plan, developed areas on the lower Flathead River contribute significant pollution to Flathead River, and subsequently Flathead Lake. Over time, septic leachate may also enter Flathead River if septic systems are not maintained regularly by all 77 landowners.”

The Creston Rural Fire District has concerns about the additional traffic the subdivision would bring to Columbia Falls Stage Road.

“Obviously the amount of traffic that would dump onto an already busy Columbia Falls Stage Road is a safety issue. It is well known that drivers use this road as a connector to Hwy 35 and it is also known that the posted speed limit seems to serve as a suggestion only to many of these drivers who are often inattentive to the world around them,” the department said in a letter dated July 24. “Putting vehicles of the number that will come from this large development will serve to create many safety hazards.”

According to a traffic impact study provided by Unique Realty Developer, the proposal is likely to generate 717 new vehicle trips per day on a road that already sees 1,275.

Jessy Coltrane, who commented on the project on behalf of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the organization also has several concerns about the project.

“We have two pieces adjacent to the proposed subdivision that are 900 acres of conservation easement and this falls right into the gap between them. That will definitely hinder wildlife movement through the area. The subdivision would basically be a blockade inside that riparian zone,” she said. “It just adds to the cumulative impact of habitat elimination in the valley. But the location of this one is especially concerning. In addition to the fragmentation of the larger riparian corridor and destruction of that habitat, you are still going to have wildlife in the area and we would anticipate a dramatic increase in wildlife conflicts — with deer and bear in particular.”

Coltrane said it is particularly disappointing to see the commercial development of land so close to an area that had been set aside for conservation with little thought put toward how it would impact the wildlife in the area.

“It is unfortunate when you see a large, high density subdivision such as this going into a place where we have worked hard towards conservation and maintaining the integrity of the wildlife habitat in the valley,” she said. “What can they do to mitigate the impacts? Maybe not put 77 houses on 114 acres. They could possibly cluster a smaller number of houses away from that riparian zone. That would be a better option.”

Wednesday’s 6 p.m. meeting will be conducted virtually due to COVID-19 concerns, but the public can take part by calling 415-655-0001 and using the event number 126 667 1141 #.

Johnston said he hopes the public join the Fairview Neighborhood Association in voicing their concerns at the meeting.

“People are not naive about development. They know it is occurring in the valley and they know there is a lot of pressure for development,” he said. “The people here are not naive about the rights of property owners, but this particular development is almost like burning the furniture to stay warm in the winter. It’s something you do if you have no other choice.”

Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 758-4446 or jweber@dailyinterlake.com.