Monday, April 12, 2021

County approves Echo Lake rezoning over objections

Daily Inter Lake | March 17, 2021 2:00 AM

The Flathead County commissioners have approved a request to rezone about 62 acres along the west shore of Echo Lake over objections from neighbors who voiced concerns about boat traffic, water quality, lakeshore erosion, wildlife habitat and fire safety.

Rowland Day, through his Day Family Trust, asked the county to rezone his property from agricultural to suburban agricultural with 5-acre minimum lot sizes, which would have put it in line with most properties on the east side of the lake. Day said he plans to eventually divvy up the property to pass it on to his five adult children.

"It looks like I've kicked a hornet's nest here," Day said during a public hearing last month, referring to his neighbors' opposition. He disputed claims that he is a "California developer" looking to profit off the land, saying he's owned the property for 21 years and lives there full time. He added he opposes creating high-density housing in the area.

"Because this is our permanent residence — this is where we live — I have no desire to have 12 neighbors," Day said. "I barely have enough desire to have my five kids on the property at the same time," he quipped.

Numerous opponents spoke against the proposal at public hearings before the Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee in January and the Flathead County Planning Board in February. The matter reached the commissioners on March 2, and after more prolonged testimony the commissioners postponed making a decision until last Thursday.

The commissioners ultimately agreed with the Planning Board, which voted 5-2 to recommend minimum lot sizes of 10 acres rather than 5. That, officials said, should allow Day to create five parcels from the land through a separate subdivision application process in the future.

WHILE SOME raised concerns about accessibility for firefighters and emergency response vehicles, most neighbors said their primary concern is about water quality. More homes on the lakeshore could mean more boats on the water, resulting in murkier water, loss of fish habitat and waves that erode the shoreline. Some also raised concerns about septic systems on the property.

Echo Lake resident Bill Dakin said those objecting to the proposal aren't NIMBYs — an acronym that stands for "not in my backyard" that is sometimes used derogatively to refer to unwelcoming neighbors.

"We don't have this idea that we're here to argue about spoiled views or ruined privacy or against growth. We don't think, 'Oh I've got a place at Echo Lake. Nobody else should have one,' " Dakin said. "We're here to comment against setting a precedent that threatens to harm the lakes themselves, and the public."

Charlotte Streit, another Echo Lake resident, concurred.

"The folks you've heard from today are not acting out of a blind opposition to progress or individual property rights or development per se," she told the commissioners. "We are opposing the further deterioration of a lake that has no outlet, that has been overdeveloped in the past and continues to decline in quality as a result. We are advocating for the future of Echo Lake, not only for us as residents, but also as an asset for the people of the wider community who take year-round advantage of the public access to the lake for fishing, watersports and recreating."

Commissioner Pam Holmquist acknowledged the water quality problem. "Echo Lake is a tough one because it's all groundwater-fed," she said. "There's no stream coming in, no stream going out, but it does have a lot of groundwater movement out in that area."

But the commissioners and members of the Planning Board said that problem has more to do with Echo Lake's public boat launch, not Day's property.

"I just think everybody here is in a tough spot, and I agree with the fact that a lot of the issues that they're facing with the water definitely are because it's public access," Planning Board member Sandra Nogal said in February. "So I don't think that's Mr. Day's issue."

JESSY COTRANE, a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, also submitted a letter objecting to the proposal, writing that "approval of repeated zone change requests contradicts why zoning was established.

"As the Flathead Valley undergoes unprecedented development, it is losing wildlife habitat and agricultural lands at an alarming pace," Coltrane wrote. "Riparian areas are rapidly being developed with little to no consideration for wildlife habitat. We consistently recommend building setbacks around bodies of water that are rarely followed by developers."

For Day's property, Coltrane recommended a 130-foot "no-build zone" at the shoreline, which would include a 100-foot vegetated buffer. The county did not mandate such a buffer zone.

"This area is frequently used by white-tailed deer, grizzly bears and black bears, as well as other mid-sized mammals and numerous avian species," Coltrane wrote. "Rezoning of this property will increase the ongoing destruction and fragmentation of wildlife habitat in the valley and will result in increased human-wildlife conflicts."

The commissioners said many of the neighbors' concerns would be addressed whenever Day applies to subdivide the land. Holmquist encouraged neighbors to "stay involved" in that process, too.

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or