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Court orders reconsideration of Bigfork retreat permit

August 29, 2018

A District Court judge has ordered the Flathead County Board of Adjustment to reconsider a conditional-use permit issued last year for a camp and retreat center near Bigfork that has been awash with neighborhood opposition for two years.

After the board OK’d the permit last May on a 3-1 vote, it gave Monica Harris and Lisa Gilbert the go-ahead to have up to four retreats per year - with up to 15 guests - as well as nightly short-term rentals in both an accessory dwelling and a guesthouse at their property on Wild Swan Trail. The property is zoned agricultural.

Neighbors appealed the board’s decision and filed a lawsuit in Flathead District Court that challenged the decision on several levels, including the board’s failure to address noise, adequate access and screening, the devaluation of adjacent properties, consideration of the Bigfork Neighborhood Plan, traffic, dog noise and natural-resource impact.

District Judge Robert Allison sided with the neighbors on several issues and remanded the permit request back to the Board of Adjustment for reconsideration. The board will hold a public hearing on Sept. 4 to deal with the review.

Allison ruled the board’s findings of fact are not sufficient to support its decision in several respects.

“As a result, the board abused its discretion when it granted the conditional-use permit at issue, and the board must reconsider this application for a conditional-use permit.”

Allison ordered the board to make findings of fact regarding:

• Whether the application at issue is for a business, such that county zoning laws apply, or a commercial use.

• Whether, and to what extent, the application complies with the applicable neighborhood plan.

• Whether the application shows there will be adequate access, “more specifically, the factual basis for finding that there will be adequate roadways due to widening roadways where feasible and installing turnouts where necessary.

The court order noted the board did not err with regards to the neighbor concerns of noise and potential liability of parties to the easement. A vegetative buffer was included in the conditions of the permit. Regarding the easement, the judge stated the Board of Adjustment is not the appropriate entity to decide the liability of parties to an easement.

Neighbors have been upset over Harris and Gilbert’s use of their property at 500 Wild Swan Trail for some time. A couple of years ago the women were offering nightly rentals in cabins until several neighbors filed formal complaints with the county. The Planning Office investigated and found the short-term rentals were a zoning violation.

The property owners complied with a county request to stop the nightly rentals and instead offer monthly rentals. Gilbert and Harris envisioned a retreat center for groups and promised low-key and low-volume activities.

Lance Morgan, one of the affected neighbors, wrote a letter Aug. 14 restating his opposition to the permit. He noted that over the last two years the nature of the applicants’ request and business has changed.

“What has not changed is the quiet rural setting in which they want to locate their business and the disruptive impact that business will have on the neighborhood and neighbors.

“The original concept was for a retreat where visitors would quietly (allegedly) commune with nature,” Morgan wrote. “Now, the idea has morphed into a youth camp which will operate - common sense would tell you - with the sounds and chaos normally associated with healthy vibrant young people.”

There has reportedly been interest by outside parties to conduct yoga and family and youth camps on the property.

Access also has been an ongoing concern. As a condition of the permit the property owners were required to widen Drew Lane in places and install turnouts to ease traffic concerns, as identified by a traffic engineer. Neighbors have argued the traffic engineer didn’t fully address the number of residences served by Drew Lane and the amount of traffic generated by retreat activities.

The board meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, in the second-floor conference room of the South Campus Building, 40 11th St. W., Kalispell.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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