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A room with a view - of another roof Growth pains continue in Flathead Valley

December 30, 2018

Debbie Street recalls a childhood lived along Rose Crossing in Flathead County that included riding her pony into town for ice cream. The pony occasionally bucked her off. But she climbed back on.

Years later, that gumption seems to linger. In recent months she has persistently raised concerns with city and county officials about increased traffic on Rose Crossing and associated hazards. Metaphorically, she’s been bucked off by public officials. But she hasn’t stopped talking about the effects of development on the road.

Her great grandparents, Richard and Susan Street, were homesteaders in 1883. They occasionally traveled to Missoula with a horse-drawn wagon for supplies.

Street, a real estate broker and developer, lives and works on Rose Crossing. She expresses mixed feelings about the development that has transformed the Flathead Valley during her lifetime and brought swarms of new residents.

“Do I just want everybody to go home? Sometimes,” Street said. “But people can try to make a positive difference. You can’t stop it [the growth].”

She emphasizes she is not anti-development and is involved in The Starling Project, a residential and commercial development at the intersection of Four Mile Drive and Stillwater Road.

Yet she says development along Rose Crossing and its recent extension from the intersection with Whitefish Stage to connect with U.S. 93 have intensified traffic on a road she believes can no longer handle it safely.

Meanwhile, growth pains in the Flathead Valley began to be felt decades ago.

For a time, the Great Recession slowed development. Now, with a more vibrant economy, observers suggest the growth that began years ago is moving at a faster clip.

The qualities that thrill people who claim deep roots in the Flathead Valley also enchant and lure newcomers.

Things like remarkable views, abundant wildlife, clear-running rivers and scenic lakes, superb outdoors recreation, and open spaces often tied to agriculture.

As residential development and commercial development continue apace, as the attributes likely to enthrall are threatened by sprawl, at what point does quality of life become a threatened species?

According to Headwaters Economics, between 1990 and 2016 Flathead County lost 71,200 acres of open space because it was converted to housing. During that same period, 45 percent of the homes built were on lots that exceeded 10 acres and 63 percent were built outside incorporated city boundaries, according to the research by Headwaters.

Pat McGlynn is the agriculture and natural resources extension agent in Kalispell for Montana State University Extension.

McGlynn hears from many newcomers who have purchased “ranchettes” of 10 or 20 acres and aren’t sure how to put their land to some sort of agricultural use.

Often, she said, these newcomers build a home smack dab in the middle of the parcel, which curtails further the land’s potential for small-scale farming.

Sometimes they end up subdividing the property and another home gets built, she said.

“People say they value the open space, yet they keep making these land-use decisions,” McGlynn said. “Instead of looking across the fields and seeing a mountain, you’re probably going to be seeing another roof.”

Paul Travis works in Kalispell as executive director for the Flathead Land Trust.

“It’s easy, especially if you’ve lived here for a long time, to get down about how much it’s changed,” Travis said.

Like McGlynn, Travis talked about people wanting to live on parcels of five to 10 acres, a trend that can imperil remaining habitat important to wildlife.

“It’s basically chopped up into smaller and smaller bits, fragmenting the land more,” he said.

In a recent newsletter, Travis wrote, “The question is, ‘How can we grow but also retain the essential natural qualities that we are lucky to enjoy in this special corner of Montana?’”

Nonprofits such as the Flathead Land Trust can work with landowners to help preserve open space through conservation easements. The trust now holds 60 easements and has protected more than 14,000 acres across Northwest Montana.

This year, the trust, working with dozens of partners, completed conservation easements with the Grosswiler and Marvin families to conserve nearly 400 acres in the West Valley to help protect a unique pothole wetland and surrounding agricultural land important to migratory birds, including sandhill cranes.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Flathead Audubon and others also helped create a public wildlife viewing area at the site.

“It’s a birding hot spot,” Travis said. “The Flathead Valley, as far as its diversity of birds, we take the cake.”

He noted that even with the growth that has occurred, there are many places remaining that provide vital wildlife habitat.

“If we develop in the wrong places, we’re taking that away,” Travis said.

He, like Street and McGlynn, emphasized the Flathead Land Trust is not anti-development.

“We just think there needs to be a balance to protect these things the people are coming to the valley for,” Travis said.

Similarly, Dillon Tabish, a regional spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the department is neither anti-growth nor anti-development, but works with partners to try to preserve important habitat.

One such partner in recent years has been F. H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co., Tabish said, with easement projects in Haskill Basin and Trumbull Creek.

Missoula County and Gallatin County have established open-space bonds that can provide a funding source to help communities to conserve agricultural lands, fish and wildlife habitat and other open space. Missoula County voters passed the bond measure in November.

Travis said such funds can be crucial when a regional land trust is required to come up with a match to make a conservation easement happen.

“It’s a game changer,” he said.

And the game keeps changing.

McGlynn referenced a trend that has raised concerns in recent years - people buying properties, sometimes sight unseen, and turning them into vacation rentals. These short-term rental units such as Airbnb and Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBOs) can take housing out of the rental market and can sometimes create a nuisance in neighborhoods because of parties and traffic, she said.

Development considered a nuisance by neighbors and the larger community can sometimes occur in places without zoning.

In Flathead County, more than 77 percent of the land is state or federally owned. Large swaths of the county that are privately owned are not zoned. Roughly 34 percent of all privately owned land in Flathead County is zoned, according to the county’s GIS department.

Meanwhile, population growth continues to exert development pressure.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data and 2017 Census estimates, the population of Flathead County went from about 90,928 in 2010 to about 100,000 in 2017.

Population data and estimates for Kalispell suggest the population grew during that period from about 19,927 to about 23,212.

Whitefish’s population went from about 6,357 in 2010 to about 7,608 in 2017, according to Census data and estimates.

And Columbia Falls’ head count increased from about 4,688 in 2010 to about 5,355 in 2017.

Street said people who live in Columbia Falls because they can’t afford housing in Kalispell are using Rose Crossing to commute.

Rose Crossing already hosts the Rosewater water-skiing community, a residential subdivision that’s being developed. And it will be affected in the months and years ahead by the Kalispell North Town Center and Eagle Valley Ranch projects as these mixed-use developments come on line in a big way.

Street tried in vain to convince Kalispell and county officials to direct the developers to include all of Rose Crossing when studying the traffic impacts of these developments on the rural road.

She was concerned for a time that a vehicle might end up on her roof. Her house and home office are directly downslope from an extreme curve on Rose Crossing where the speed limit drops to 10 mph.

Several Jersey barriers in the heart of the curve now provide some protection for Street’s house. But she said vehicle crashes on the curve are on the rise.

Street says traffic has increased exponentially since Rose Crossing was extended past its intersection with Whitefish Stage to connect to U.S. 93. She said people use the road now as an alternative to congested West Reserve Drive to commute between U.S. 93 and U.S. 2.

She said a traffic engineer needs to work with landowners along Rose Crossing to come up with a comprehensive remedy.

“They cannot piecemeal it,” she said. “All of Rose Crossing needs to be addressed, from Whitefish Stage to Highway 2.”

Street said she is not an engineer and does not know how best to address the narrow dogleg curve that looms above her house.

Russ Sappington, fire chief of the West Valley Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, agrees with Street, that officials need to ponder improvements to Rose Crossing, considering its connection now to U.S. 93, the ongoing development along Rose Crossing’s corridor and the 90-degree curve and narrow passage at its adjoining hill.

In the short term, Sappington said, he’d like to see the county install additional Jersey barriers along the road on the east side of the hill.

Street said traffic and engineering studies should be followed by improvements to Rose Crossing.

“I believe the funding should come from the developers who are creating the impacts,” she said. “The county can contribute some funds. The Montana Department of Transportation can contribute some funds.”

Street said she is not someone who typically inserts herself into local government debates.

“I’d really rather not have a lot of controversy in my life,” she said. “I was forced to go into a public forum because everybody was ignoring me.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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