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Planning Board rejects housing project east of Kalispell

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | October 15, 2020 12:15 PM

The Flathead County Planning Board on Wednesday rejected an application for a controversial housing development east of Kalispell.

The Rolling Acres subdivision, proposed by Betty Trueblood and Unique Realty Developer Inc., is envisioned to have 77 lots on 114 acres bound by Columbia Falls Stage Road and Kingfisher Lane, all served by shared wells, individual septic systems and a community sand-mound septic system.

The property is located on the west side of Columbia Falls Stage, north of Kingfisher Lane.

With Wednesday's vote, five members of the Planning Board recommended the Flathead County commissioners deny the developers' request for a preliminary plat. The other four board members were absent.

In recent months, the project has drawn immense scrutiny from neighbors in the Creston area who are worried about potential impacts on traffic, wildlife, water quality and the availability of prime farmland, among other issues. The land for the proposed subdivision is between two conservation easements totaling roughly 1,000 acres of riparian wetlands.

"Basically a small town is being proposed without common facilities as far as water or septic sewage treatment," board member Dean Sirucek said before casting his vote. "I think that's somewhat problematic."

Sirucek, a former soil scientist, added he doesn't believe enough analysis has been done on the soil and sediment layers at the site of the proposed subdivision. He said types of soil vary dramatically in that area, and so he worries there could be a large, underground channel of meltwater running through the site, making it unsuitable for development.

Additionally, Sirucek said climate change is making prime farmland increasingly rare, and it shouldn't be used for housing developments.

In a July letter opposing the Rolling Acres project, the Flathead Conservation District said prime farmland accounts for about 1% of all land in the county, and the development would further reduce local food production. Sirucek is the conservation district's secretary-treasurer.

"It is some of the very best farmland within the western United States," he said of the area. "Just because it is a small acreage doesn't mean it isn't viable, in my mind."

The conservation district also raised concern about septic leachate running into the Flathead River if septic systems aren't properly maintained by all 77 landowners. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the project would hinder wildlife movement and result in more human-animal conflicts, particularly with deer and bears.

Board members Jeff Larsen and Greg Stevens also discussed their reasons for denying the project, saying they did not believe the application met all the requirements of state law.

As a caveat, however, Larsen said he was unpersuaded by a site analysis provided by the Fairview Neighborhood Association, a nonprofit formed in opposition to the project, because the analysis did not rely on data collected from the site itself.

"In my opinion as an engineer, a model is only as good as the worst data put into it," Larsen said.

Likewise, Stevens said he believes health concerns related to wastewater at the site are unfounded, noting the project has been approved by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

"I've been doing this for decades, and the DEQ is a mighty tough organization to make happy," Stevens said. "The reason I'm voting against this … has nothing to do with health reasons."

Stevens said he wouldn't rule out approving the project if the developers resolve some safety concerns and submit a new application.

Roger Sullivan, an attorney for the Fairview Neighborhood Association, praised the board's decision.

"I was pleased that the planning board paid attention to the concerns of the public. They paid attention to the requirements of the subdivision regulations and the state statutes," Sullivan said. "And in my estimation, they are making the factually and legally correct recommendation to the county commissioners."

If the developers do submit a new application, Sullivan said he's confident experts will show that the geology and topography of the site can't support the proposed density of homes, wells and septic systems.

"It will not be able to meet the requirements of state law," Sullivan said. "But that awaits another other day."

Reporter Chad Sokol may be reached at 758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.