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Board OKs variance to replace burned C-Falls apartment building

by TERESA BYRD
Hungry Horse News | November 28, 2020 12:00 AM

The Columbia Falls Board of Adjustment last week approved a variance that will allow the owners of a nine-unit apartment building that burned down in August to rebuild, albeit with a different design.

The lot at the end of Fourth Avenue West is zoned CR-3, which limits buildings to one-family residential.

The old apartment building was built before the current zoning regulations, sometime in the 1960s.

However, city regulations state that any building more than 50% destroyed in a fire must be rebuilt in accordance with current zoning, regardless of whether it was constructed before any zoning plans were enacted, City Planner Eric Mulcahy told the board.

Chad Ross of CNS Property, LLC, who owns the lot, submitted an application requesting a variance that would allow them to recoup the nine units that were lost in the fire.

The applicant’s case was bolstered by the fact that the one-family residential feel of the neighborhood already has been altered by two seven-unit apartment complexes built in the early 2000s, just north of Ross’ property, according to City Attorney Justin Breck.

The adjacent complexes were built after obtaining a conditional-use permit, granted by the city, which allowed for a “non-conforming use expansion” of up to 50%.

CNS Property could have followed the same route as the complexes, but a 50% “non-conforming” expansion on its smaller lot would still have allowed them to build only four total units, which is why the applicant sought a novel variance.

The application received four public comments, three of which were in opposition.

Neighbor Mark Cahill claimed the proposition was not a “reconstruction” but a “replacement,” since the new plans did not build upon the original L-shaped footprint of the previous apartment, but would instead break construction up into three individual units.

Cahill voiced concerns the new configuration nearly doubles the size of the original footprint and would greatly decrease existing greenspace, including some of the old growth trees surrounding the property.

Ron Nash of Montana Creative Architecture and Design, representing the applicant, addressed the concerns, saying the broken-up design was meant to give more of a one-family residential feel in keeping with the zoning. He also stated most of the trees are expected to be salvaged as a buffer between properties.

Board Chair Roger Newman, who cast the only vote in opposition to the reconstruction, said he did so largely out of respect for the members of the public who had voiced their concerns. He also mentioned honoring the zoning regulations that were thoughtfully and laboriously constructed by prior members of the community.

While CNS Property has no definitive timeline, construction for the new apartments is projected for sometime next summer.