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C-Falls planning board approves hotel project in split vote

by CHRIS PETERSON
Hungry Horse News | September 22, 2022 12:00 AM

The Columbia Falls City-County Planning Board approved a plan Tuesday night for a new hotel at the Glacier Inn Motel site on U.S. 2 in a 4-2 vote.

Members Robert Smith and Claudette Byrd-Rinck voted against the project. Members Patti Singer, Mike Shepard, Kurt Nelson and Clay Lundgren voted in favor of sending the plan to city council with a positive recommendation.

Neighbors and residents were largely opposed to the 65-unit hotel, claiming it was too tall, would have a negative impact on Marantette Park and was out of character with the neighborhood.

Board Chair Russ Vukonich and member Sam Kavanagh were absent from the meeting.

The hotel, proposed by developer Mick Ruis, would have four stories. He is asking for a 5-foot deviation from the 45-foot height limit under the CB-2 zoning (general business) to 50 feet total so the building can feature differing roof heights. It also will have an elevator, which requires five additional feet at the roof line.

The height of the building and the perception that Ruis projects were routinely given variances raised the ire of residents in attendance.

“Please stop approving variances and protect our small town character,” one resident told the board.

That same sentiment was brought forth repeatedly by members of the public.

City Attorney Justin Breck disputed the claim that the municipality was giving more variances than usual, however.

Resident Will Hammerquist offered concerns about the impact on Marantette Park, which sits across the street from the site.

“I see it as a degradation of the park,” Hammerquist said. “It’s a really nice little park.”

Others were opposed to the bulk of the building.

“It’s a large building in a small footprint,” one resident said. “I just don’t feel it fits in.”

The footprint of the building is 13,209 square feet. The hotel will sit on the western side of the property with the parking on the east side. The back of the hotel will face Second Avenue West. The entrance will be in the northeast and directly onto U.S. 2.

There also was a short debate over whether it was a hotel at all. It’s marketed as “extended stay” because rooms will feature kitchenettes.

But City Planner Eric Mulcahy said it was considered a hotel because the business model included reservations and other amenities associated with the hospitality industry. How long someone stayed was up to them. Apartments, he noted after the meeting, fall under different city code and health department requirements. More importantly, they are barred in areas zoned CB-2.

The city fire department can serve the hotel, it was noted. The department owns a 108-foot ladder truck, which is tall enough should a fire occur. The building also would have a sprinkler system. The existing hotel on the site would remain as a hotel as well.

The board did approve one additional condition to the proposal — that a tree buffer be extended to U.S. 2 along Second Avenue West. The plan is to preserve mature trees that already exist along the roadway and the buffer would extend the line of trees to the north so people sitting in the park at the Veterans Wall weren’t looking at the back of the building.

Resident Clarence Taber suggested the hotel front U.S. 2 entirely, with the parking in the back of the building. No action was taken on that suggestion, however.

The meeting was emotional at times.

Board member Mike Shepard spoke to the audience after the vote, saying his vote was completely independent.

“I do not get any money from Mick (Ruis) at all,” he said. “I’ve been accused of being on the take.”

The hotel proposal now goes on to the Columbia Falls City Council on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. for final consideration.

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