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California-style urban sprawl is coming for the Flathead Valley

by Kendall Cotton
| February 19, 2023 12:00 AM

California-style urban sprawl is coming for the Flathead Valley. Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls look hardly anything like Los Angeles from the surface right now, but their zoning maps look eerily similar. If our cities are zoned like Los Angeles., that means the Flathead Valley will grow like L.A. In 25 years, the valley could be home to miles of urban sprawl that takes over our treasured open spaces and rural communities. If we don’t want Montana to become like California, we must address the California-Style zoning regulations in our cities before it’s too late.

Much like the cities and towns in the Flathead Valley today, LA was once defined by its access to the outdoors, clean air and elbow room – a far cry from the city we know today. L.A’s transformation began in the 20th Century when government planners decided they, not the people, knew what was best for the booming city. The result was a litany of government zoning regulations which forced new homes and lots be larger, more expensive and further away from city centers than what the free market might decide. As of 2022, 74% of L.A.’s residential areas were restricted to only single-family homes, zoning out the most affordable types of starter homes for young families like duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes.

Frontier Institute’s Montana Zoning Atlas report finds striking similarities between L.A’s zoning map and the Flathead Valley. Much like L.A., a vast majority of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls are reserved only for expensive single-family homes on large lots. Kalispell for instance welcomes duplexes by-right on only 48% of zoned land and triplexes on just 3%. After factoring in minimum lot area regulations, the Atlas found Whitefish set up like a mini-L.A. with 63% of primary residential areas that prohibit duplexes. Columbia Falls is the worst out of the three, outright prohibiting duplexes in 93% of the city.

Zoning requirements have become so substantial that it is routine to see small and big developers alike beg local officials for a respite from the zoning requirements in order to get homes built within or nearby existing urban areas. Last spring for example, the Kalispell City Council approved a development to be an extra 28 feet taller in their downtown area than the zoning normally allows, enabling the creation of 78 new homes directly in the city center. While Kalispell has a relatively good track record of granting approvals for zoning flexibilities, we all know public hearings for new housing aren’t without controversy as nosy neighbors show up in force to pressure city leaders, often successfully, to shut down new home development.

Whitefish has routinely denied denser housing projects when given the opportunity, and at times made national news for their NIMBYism. The most recent was a proposal to build 270 multi-family units in exchange for 32 of them being deed-restricted affordable and a donation of almost nine acres which could be used for other affordable housing. The project was denied.

The California-style zoning of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls make it easier to build a McMansion in the valley than build a duplex or triplex in the city center. This is a recipe for sprawling suburbia that takes over the entire valley, crowding out the green open fields and quaint surrounding communities that make the Flathead area feel like such a special place.

Flathead Valley communities must recognize that we can’t stop people from moving here. We have to have a plan to accommodate population growth in a way that preserves the Montana way of life we all love and enjoy. Providing more freedom to landowners to build denser homes in our cities will help contain population growth to city centers and keep Montana, feeling like Montana.

Kendall Cotton is president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so all Montanans can thrive.