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Neighbors appeal apartment variance in C-Falls to state high court

Hungry Horse News | November 25, 2022 12:00 AM

The neighbors of a Columbia Falls apartment complex that burned down have appealed a district court ruling allowing the owner to rebuild.

Earlier this year, Flathead County District Court Judge Robert Allison ruled that Chad Ross, owner Swiss Apartments on Fourth Avenue West, could rebuild nine units destroyed in an August 2020 blaze. The ruling came after neighbors Inge and Mark Cahill, Kerin Gayner, William and Nanette Reed and Irving Erickson challenged a city board of adjustment decision letting Ross rebuild.

Ross had come to the city a few months after the fire with a plan to restore the complex with a new configuration that would have seen three buildings go up on the roughly half-acre lot. That plan included a four-plex, a triplex and duplex. The duplex and triplex would have featured parking toward the Cahills’ home.

The Cahills and others argued that the apartments should not be rebuilt because they were a nonconforming, though legal, use.

But Allison ruled otherwise, finding that the city’s issuance of a variance that would allow the structures to be rebuilt, albeit with a different footprint, was appropriate.

“Granting the variance serves the public interest in providing affordable housing for young families and members of the workforce living in Columbia Falls,” Allison opined.

Neighbors appealed to the Montana Supreme Court earlier this year.

They claim there are no guarantees that the project will result in workforce housing or be affordable, for that matter, as Ross said they would be.

“The board did not condition approval of the variance on providing affordable or workforce housing, nor did it require (Ross) record a deed restriction on the property. Such a blind willingness to believe a developer’s promise (especially in the midst of rising construction prices and skyrocketing demand to live in the Flathead Valley) not only sets a dangerous precedent legally, it also does a great disservice to the citizens who actually need affordable housing in Columbia Falls," the neighbors argue in their opening brief to the Supreme Court.

“If the district court is affirmed in its reasoning, developers will have projects approved with the mere promise to build affordable housing, when in reality, very few affordable units will actually materialize. The district court fails to address this argument in its order, and abused its discretion by adopting the board’s reasoning in this regard without meaningfully addressing the factual basis for such reasoning,” the brief reads.

The Swiss Apartments were built in 1969 on a lot that lacked zoning at the time. They’re adjacent to an existing apartment complex.

The court has yet to take any action on the suit, which likely won’t be considered until next year.

The Cahills are also suing the city in a separate matter, claiming the Kreck Riverside Park the city owns adjacent to their property is a nuisance and should be closed.

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