The Flathead County Planning and Zoning Board on July 13 declined to review a highly contested zone change proposal for three parcels of land on KM Ranch Road and Highway 93, between Kalispell and Whitefish. Though the board had been slated to review the proposal for weeks, a last-minute request by Montarise Developments and its partner APEC Engineering pushed the hearing back to September, frustrating local residents and advocacy groups who hoped to voice their opposition to the plan. While the development groups say the proposed project will aid in solving the county’s housing crisis, residents of the area claim it will hinder community safety and disrupt natural habitats.
The disputed zone change proposal would convert around 155 acres of land on KM Ranch Road from a SAG-5 Suburban Agricultural zoning classification to R-1 Suburban Residential, paving the way for a major residential and commercial development by Montarise. Under the land’s current R-1 zoning status, developers are constrained by a 5-acre density requirement, allowing for a maximum of 31 units to be constructed on the three parcels. An approved zone change by the county would reduce the density requirement to 1-acre, allowing for the construction of about 150 units. Moreover, Montarise intends to use a planned unit development design, which will increase construction allowances even further. If approved, the PUD will grant Montarise the ability to use about 20 acres of the land for commercial development and the remaining 135 acres for the construction of 268 housing units. The developers plan on building “a mixed density of single family dwellings with multi-family and a small percentage of compatible commercial use.”
In their application to the county, Montarise and APEC Engineering stated that a zoning change would allow “for a much more functional, efficient, and economical use of the 155.9 acre property,” which is currently wooded and undeveloped. The developers argued that the proposal would provide “more housing options, and more housing inventory, in response to a sharp increase in housing demand in the Flathead Valley.” The Valley’s housing crisis has long hurt local residents, who have struggled to find adequate options given the area’s limited and expensive home supply.
However, neighbors of the proposed development are skeptical of Montarise’s claims that the project will help improve the area and remedy the housing crisis. Many opponents are allied with Friends for Responsible Rural Growth, a 501(c)3 nonprofit formed in response to the prospective KM Ranch Road development and led by Whitefish resident Marshall Friedman. FFRRG’s mission statement says that the group intends to “assure that any proposed development projects are consistent with the character of our neighborhoods,” and that such developments “preserve the safety and wellbeing of surrounding residents, land, water, and wildlife.”
In a July 6 email provided to the Beacon, FFRRG urged Flathead County Planning Director Erik Mack to deny Montarise’s zone change application on a number of grounds. Attorneys for the nonprofit specified that Montarise’s application did not contain a critical Traffic Impact Study and “failed to establish how the development and zone change will facilitate the adequate provision of water, sewerage, and schools given the location and increase in population associated with the project.” FFRRG also argued that the development plan did not show any intention of preserving the community’s agricultural nature, would “escalate traffic danger…and the use of unsignalized turn lanes on Highway 93” and exacerbate the dangers of wildfires and other emergency events, given “the limitations on emergency egress combined with the increase in traffic.”
Friedman acknowledged the dire nature of the housing crisis; however he said the Montarise development would do little to remedy the shortage, and would only make residents vulnerable to a number of dangers. “We know that growth is inevitable. The developer is entitled to build 30 houses on that property, that’s the zoning. Nothing wrong with him doing that,” Friedman told the Beacon. The developer is currently permitted to build 31 homes on the property.
“Our interest is absolutely that any kind of growth be compatible with the community and the area in which it is, and the development proposed is as incompatible as possible,” he added.
APEC Engineering declined to comment on the matter. Montarise did not respond to immediate request for comment via voicemail.
Opposition to the project has been brewing for weeks. The planning board was slated to discuss the proposal at its June meeting, however an unexpectedly large crowd prompted the board to move the public hearing to July’s meeting, which was held in the large Flathead County Fairgrounds Expo Building. More than 50 people showed up for the meeting on Wednesday, however attendees arrived to find the KM Ranch Road matter crossed out on the agenda, prompting pushback from the crowd. After board members told the group that the Montarise hearing had been postponed by the developer and would occur at September’s meeting, the majority of the crowd exited in frustration.
Mack told the Beacon that the postponement occurred after “the owners called to withdraw yesterday afternoon because they wanted to take some time to review the written public comment.” Montarise Developments is listed as the property’s owner on the zone change application.
Numerous attendees said that they saw the last-minute switch as a tactic by Montarise and APEC Engineering to stave off mounting criticism. “We did everything right,” KM Ranch Road resident Joe Coco said. Coco and his wife, Linda, had shown up to the meeting to express concerns about what the development would mean for the area. “We’re not ready to see traffic dangers in our neighborhood,” Joe said.
Friedman said the decision by the developers was disrespectful to the planning board and the KM Ranch Road residents, who had made long-standing plans to appear at the hearing. He said that FFRRG hired lawyers for the meeting, a costly undertaking. “We wouldn’t disrespect them in the same way,” he said.
As FFRRG’s allies await the September hearing and the KM Ranch Road development remains in limbo, Friedman said he will “continue to energize people.” “We’ve gotten a lot of responses of people who want to be a part of what we’re doing.”