The Columbia Falls City-County Planning Board struggled at their May 14 meeting with a developer’s plan to build 40-50 mini-storage units at the east entrance to the city.
The zoning change part of the request from Ted Nichols made sense to the board, which unanimously agreed that the property on U.S. 2 East next to Oh’s Body Shop should be zoned for commercial uses and not residential.
The 1.4-acre property has both CB-2 and CR-3 zoning, but with all the noise from the busy highway, Nichols said he hasn’t been able to use the portion with residential zoning since he bought the property in 1994.
The board, however, had concerns with Nichols’ request for a conditional-use permit to build a shop with an office, a boat storage building and 40-50 mini-storage units at the site.
“My sole concern is aesthetic, but it’s private property, so we need to address buffers,” board member and city councilor Mike Shepard said.
Board members knew an application like this one was coming. City planning staff first brought up potential changes to the city’s east entrance at the city council’s Feb. 19, 2013 meeting.
Planning staff wanted to begin a corridor planning process for U.S. 2 East from Oh’s Body Shop to the Flathead River bridge after several property owners requested zone changes and proposed commercial development there.
Looking at the requests one at a time would be the easiest option, city planning consultant Eric Mulcahy said at the time, but that could result in “unintended consequences or decisions based on precedence rather than planning and design.”
City manager Susan Nicosia told the council at the time that the city doesn’t want “to piecemeal it” one property at a time. She noted that zoning in the area was already jumbled, with some properties crossing two zoning districts.
“This is a unique part of our town,” Shepard told the council at their April 15, 2013 meeting. “We need to protect the east entrance to our city.”
Mulcahy followed up by drafting language for a new limited-business zoning district, with the goal of striking a balance between the neighborhood’s residential character and inevitable commercialization of the U.S. 2 East area.
The city council approved language for the new zoning district on Aug. 19, 2013 but following a lengthy debate voted 5-1 against applying the new district to the U.S. 2 neighborhood.
Councilor Dave Petersen said at the time he was looking for a “compelling reason” to approve the zoning change along U.S. 2 East. He cited traffic hazards, impacts by commercial zones on adjacent residential areas and the numerous commercial sites in town that already had city water and sewer.
To address the planning board’s aesthetic concerns last week, Nichols said he didn’t plan on putting fences around mini-storage units because they were unsightly. He also provided photos of mini-storage units in Missoula that he said were very tastefully done and could be built here.
The board chose to amend one of the 11 conditions provided by staff by lengthening the mini-storage’s business hours to the same as city park hours — 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. The board also added a 12th condition calling for additional landscaping along the highway.
Nichols’ request will go to the city council on June 2.