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MDT revokes permit for proposed alpine coaster development

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | July 13, 2022 12:00 AM

The Montana Department of Transportation has nixed a highway approach permit for a proposed — and neighbor opposed — development on U.S. 93 near Lakeside featuring an alpine coaster.

Agency spokesperson Megan Redmond cited “a change in use that was noted from what property owners disclosed on the original application” for the revocation.The property owners, Torsten and Jess Wedel, are now in the process of obtaining a temporary approach permit, which gives them access to the property while they complete a new, permanent approach permit. A highway approach permit allows an owner to access their property.

Community members have voiced strong opposition to the alpine coaster development. An alpine coaster, or mountain coaster, is an amusement ride that uses bobsled-like carts to ride down a track that is built into a hillside. The Wedels attempted to build the coaster in Lake County last year on a different parcel of land, but were denied a zone change after similar opposition from the community. County commissioners there cited potential traffic problems with the development.

The Wedels did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

At a May 18 community meeting addressing concerns about the development, MDT Maintenance Chief Justin Juelfs said developers told his agency earlier this year that they planned to build “VRBO type cabins” and a gift shop on the property. At the urging of community members, who petitioned the department to investigate further, Juelfs said the owners then revealed their plans for an alpine coaster.

Redmond said the revocation followed because the original approval was not going to stand, owing to the updated use of the property.

MDT has been notified that the landowners are obtaining a traffic impact study based on the intended use and will provide the results to the state upon completion. Based on the study results, impact mitigation may be required — at the developer’s expense. That traffic impact study will be conducted by a licensed engineering firm, Redmond said.

The landowners will have to complete a new application that will be vetted through MDT’s “Systems Impact Action Process.” That process has defined goals such as: “providing an avenue for private developers to request access to and from the state highway system, facilitating a timely review of the developer’s request, identifying reasonable accommodation of the developer’s project needs, preserving the safety, operational efficiency and integrity of Montana’s transportation system, protecting taxpayer investments by recovering costs from developers for their project’s impacts to the transportation system and ensuring MDT permitting does not precede an environmental process.”

Redmond said the MDT follows a formal process for all approach permits as well as their standard environmental process. She said no other studies are warranted at this time.

Simultaneously, the Upper West Shore Alliance started a petition titled “Remind MDT and DEQ they have an obligation to protect & preserve the Highway 93 Corridor,” which is poised to reach its 100 signature goal. The petition asks MDT to initiate a comprehensive highway corridor analysis through an Environmental Impact Statement as set forth by the Montana Environmental Policy Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. An Environmental Impact Statement is a government document that outlines the potential effects of a proposed project on the surrounding environment.

They are also urging the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to conduct a thorough review of the potential water quality impacts and the cumulative effects of similar developments that could be put in place along the western shore of Flathead Lake.

“The development of a commercial entity of this magnitude as well as the cumulative impacts of other similar commercial entities that might choose to co-locate along this gateway entrance to Lakeside has the potential to be environmentally catastrophic and degrade the performance of this highway corridor and create a serious safety hazard for those traveling this section of U.S. 93 which has been declared a limited access highway by the MDT,” the petition reads.

The petition argues that there is significant concern regarding the potential negative impacts on the water quality of Flathead Lake and natural habitat for many different kinds of animals in the area.

“MDT will follow our standard processes and procedures to ensure the safety of a roadway for all of the users,” Redmond said in response to the petition. “We're following the exact same process that we do statewide. And it's important for us to follow the protocol and collect the data that's needed so we can maintain a fair and unbiased decision.”