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County Planning Board recommends approval of 51 homes in North Shore Woods

by JEREMY WEBER
For the Eagle | October 12, 2023 1:00 PM

After being tabled twice since August and a lengthy discussion Wednesday, the Flathead County Planning board voted to recommend the approval of the proposed North Shore Woods subdivision in Bigfork last night, but only part of it.

After hearing numerous traffic safety concerns from Bigfork citizens, the board voted to recommend denial of a proposed zone change and planned unit development for the project, but will recommend the approval of a preliminary plat for 51 residential lots.

Located between Peaceful Drive and Bigfork Stage Road (the area behind Dairy Queen to the south and El Topo Cantina to the north), the currently vacant area is proposed to be developed by Longbow Land Partners, LLC of Jackson, Wyoming, who is being represented by the WGM Group in the current proceedings.

According to a planned unit development overlay application filed with Flathead County Planning and Zoning March 30, the company intends to build 125 single-family units on the property and is asking the county to cut the required lot size in half to do so.

All three applications were recommended for denial by the Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee (BLUAC) July 28 and first went before the Flathead County Planning Board at their August meeting, but a decision was tabled in August and again in September after questions arose over the validity of a traffic impact study.

A new public hearing was held during Wednesday’s meeting to review new traffic information presented by the WGM group, but the planning board was once again less than satisfied with the group’s findings.

Along with numerous traffic safety concerns voiced by Bigfork residents in attendance, Mary Flowers of the Citizens for a Better Flathead Group presented information from Washington-based traffic engineer Rick Nys of Greenlight Engineering that called much of WGM’s report into question.

“There are numerous omissions in the applicant’s materials and, based on those omissions, it cannot be determined if the applicant has provided sufficient evidence that show that the transportational criteria have been met,” Nys told the board. “Flathead County subdivision regulations require the applicant to show their work, but they have failed to do so. The Flathead County subdivision regulations and MDT standards clearly require the submission of crash data for crash analysis, but none of the traffic reports provide any crash data or analysis, so there is no evidence that the transportation system is, or will be, safe.”

WGM had no information as to why a crash report was not included with the traffic study.

“I am also surprised that the crash data is not in the report. I would say there was none available as it was not something that would have been omitted intentionally,” WGM Project Manager Michael Brodie told the board.

In addition to the lack of a crash analysis, the new report presented by WGM at the meeting concluded that the addition of 51 residential homes would have no impact on the wait time for vehicles turning from Peaceful Drive onto Hwy 35 and that the addition of 125 homes would only raise the wait time from the current 14 seconds to 15.2 seconds.

These findings were called into question by several Bigfork residents.

“I don’t understand how adding 51 more cars is going to have no impact on the traffic. I don’t understand how 125 additional cars or more only makes a minimal impact. It makes no sense to me,” James Abney said. “If this company has such a great plan for how we are going to get in and out of Peaceful Drive, how come we haven’t seen anything? We have seen all kinds of data, but where is the road plan?”

“If you vote to go ahead with this development, you will be putting all of us who live in Peaceful Acres in mortal danger, along with the people in the new development,” Gina Stein added.

Citing their concerns, the board voted 4-1 to not recommend the zone change that would split the current 51 lots into 125, with Verdell Jackson the only one voting in the minority.

“I think that everyone’s testimony, plus the information from the traffic engineer shows some valid concerns. Therefore, I am not ready to vote for this at this time,” board chairman Jeff Larsen said. “As indicated by the public testimony, there are other issues other than a traffic study involving safety. The testimony here tonight indicates that there are safety concerns even if the level of service is met. There are safety concerns in my mind.”

With the vote to not recommend the zone change, the board had no choice but to vote against the planned unit development application, as it was contingent on the zone change.

Following that decision, the board voted 4-1 (Buck Breckenridge against) to recommend the approval of the preliminary plat for phase 1 of the North Shore Woods project, a proposal to create 51 residential lots on the property.

“I can tell you this. This county desperately needs additions to its existing housing stock. Desperately. All around the country, not only in Montana, it is now recognized that land use restrictive zoning is one of the prime drivers of the cost of housing in this county, in this state and in this country. So, for me to vote against the addition of housing stock in this county is fairly rare,” board member Greg Stevens defended his position. “I know there are folks in Bigfork that could use this housing, but you see, they’re not here to testify. Only the opponents are here to testify. The people who would benefit from the addition of housing stock in Bigfork, they don’t know what is going on here. They don’t know what they are missing out on. I always take that into consideration too, because there are people that would love to live in this subdivision. By not permitting it, we would be denying them.”

“I understand the traffic problems and I understand the growth problems and I understand the fear. The fact of the matter to me is that, if we don’t raise the existing housing stock, we are going to exacerbate the price of housing. It's as simple as supply and demand,” Stevens continued. “These are not easy decisions. I don’t care if the developer is from here or from elsewhere. If he can provide new housing, I am all for it in most cases.”

Larsen echoed Stevens’s reasoning.

“We have a choice, we can try to stop all development and have a stagnant economy, or we can have some development. I get that the neighbors don’t want it and I get it. I also know that most of our kids can’t afford to live here,” he said. “This piece of property is right in compliance with the zoning. It meets the neighborhood plan and the growth policy. If we don’t put this addition here, I don’t know where else we should put it.”

The final decision on the fate of the project now lies in the hands of the Flathead County Commissioners, who will consider all three applications at a future meeting.

Agendas for Flathead County Commissioner meetings can be found online at https://flathead.mt.gov/department-directory/commissioners-office.