Manifest Destiny

Sprawling subdivisions are not the Flathead Valley’s inevitable future.

FEATURE

Clare Menzel, Whitefish Montana, ski, author

BY KEEGAN SIEBENALER

When Tianna Thomas moved back to the Flathead Valley as a crisis counselor for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in 2019, she couldn’t even recognize her hometown of Whitefish—let alone live in it.

“I was looking at the numbers and I would have to make about $45 an hour just for my children and me to live here,” Tianna says. “Last summer I was working four jobs. There’s a lot of strain and it’s really stressful. I had significant savings, but if I never see my children, what’s the point? It’s a challenge to be present, and then when you are present, you’re exhausted.”

The increasing exclusivity of many places in the valley has real consequences; Tianna’s story is not a unique one. A profound shortage of reasonably priced housing options has created intense competition and price hikes for low and moderate-income renters and homeowners. Workers who drive our economy and keep our businesses functional spend more and more of their limited income on housing and transportation. Ambitious young professionals like Tianna can’t move back to their hometowns.

Given this backdrop, the recent denial of large apartment complexes by Whitefish and Columbia Falls City Councils seems puzzling. These proposals, loudly opposed by some community members, were not merely controversial because of specific logistics, wastewater, or safety concerns. Many objections were emotional arguments centered on the assumption that density is the enemy, a threat to a Montanan way of life.

Many objections were emotional arguments centered on the assumption that density is the enemy, a threat to a Montanan way of life.

 

These emotional reactions have fostered a zero-sum mindset over land use in the Flathead Valley: population growth, the tourism industry, and young workers are at odds with public lands, homeowners, and rural culture. As well-meaning interests face off against each other, our community succumbs to a bitter and tired debate devoid of solutions but full of finger-pointing. 

Paths out of this wilderness exist. While the Flathead is undoubtedly special, we are not unique. Around the Mountain West, communities are grappling with what it means to be “discovered.” We can find rural areas that demonstrate how dense growth can preserve and reinforce our rural culture by evaluating whether the types of land use we encourage are reasonable. A positive-sum future for the Flathead Valley is possible.

There are some realities that we have to face to make this happen. The first of these is population growth. Accelerated by both the pandemic and housing shortages in bigger cities across the nation, the population of Flathead County grew by 3.5% in 2021, vastly outstripping statewide growth of 1.8% and nationwide growth of 0.1%. Even if every person in the Flathead Valley agreed that not one more person should move here—not any more of their children or parents, not a single new teacher, physician, electrician, or mechanic—that’s not how our society works; we cannot call the police to report a U-Haul. The increased feasibility of remote work, housing shortages in bigger cities, and the increasing popularity of outdoor activities and tourism will continue to make northwest Montana an attractive destination. No amount of animosity towards tourists or newcomers will change that fact.

Given that we cannot wish ourselves back to the population levels of five or 10 years ago, we must also accept that new housing will emerge. We’ve always built new housing, mainly in the form of single-family homes creeping out from our city limits into the surrounding countryside. Why is that? 

A builder can turn a field into single-family houses almost invisibly because zoning regulations are primarily designed for suburb construction. Suburbs aren’t a law of nature—they certainly aren’t cheap to build—but instead are the market’s response to strict regulations. On the other hand, building multifamily units almost always requires variance requests—exceptions to the zoning regulations that the relevant city board must approve. The request requires a meeting, the meeting generates a headline, and people show up to oppose one dense development while five other single-family subdivisions proceed quietly, putting fewer homes on exponentially more acreage.

This is part of the reason that population growth feels so onerous—our land use laws and sensibilities concentrate development in the least land-efficient and most expensive forms possible. We mandate car-dependent suburbs that eat up open space, then place them far from the goods and services those people need, thus requiring huge parking lots, road systems, and infrastructure costs to serve them. 

Each urban apartment and downtown development represents a patch of wilderness or open space on the city’s edge that need not be developed into sparse subdivisions.

 

Relatively tall, population-dense apartment and townhome complexes are different. In addition to preserving more open space, areas with density can incorporate street-level retail; the presence of all those people also encourages businesses and amenities to cluster nearby, improving a town’s walkability. The potential for shorter commutes and the possibility to walk and bike is valuable, especially when gas prices are high. 

When local cook Clay Cole was hunting for an affordable apartment in Whitefish, he looked for places closer to town. “I was hoping to be able to walk or ride my bike to town for work,” he says. “That’s why I was attracted to the idea of a small apartment. I wanted to be able to enjoy the benefits of getting in and out of Whitefish easily.” 

Clay was lucky to find an apartment near the center of Whitefish.  His story demonstrates how walkability is an attractive option for small areas of downtown Whitefish, Kalispell, and Columbia Falls. The silo apartments under construction along Kalispell’s new Parkline Trail and revitalization along Nucleus Avenue in Columbia Falls are perfect illustrations of how density and walkability can transform formerly flagging areas into desirable neighborhoods filled with life and activity.

Most importantly, smaller units on shared parcels of land are just less expensive to build, and therefore cheaper to buy or rent. As a younger adult without a family, I like to spend my free time in the mountains. 

Spending less on rent to buy a ski pass or to put more money in savings is a good tradeoff when I would mainly use an apartment for sleep.

The whole community benefits when dense housing soaks up population growth. First, reducing demand allows prices across the market to moderate. It will not solve the entire housing crisis; we still need to invest in affordable housing solutions through programs like deed restrictions, short-term rental reform, and community land trusts. But simply legalizing the construction of accessory dwelling units (such as garage apartments), duplexes, and townhomes remains the easiest way to add affordable supply to our market. Most importantly, each urban apartment and downtown development represents a patch of wilderness or open space on the city’s edge that need not be developed into sparse subdivisions.

These ideas are not novel, but instead a reflection of how towns across the Mountain West are beginning to embrace smart growth. They build on a foundation of rural towns across most of Europe, which are characterized by rows of buildings with storefronts below apartments and ample services within a 15-minute walk of the center of town. This density enables hard borders on the edge of cities, with farmland and wilderness entirely preserved. In places as diverse as Spokane, Washington; Laramie, Wyoming; and the state of Utah, reforms dedicated to promoting density and diverse housing types have allowed for better forms of growth. Here in the Flathead, we have the potential to avoid the mistakes of suburban sprawl that dominate coastal cities.

Suppose we don’t make our preference for dense development known and adjust our zoning and planning regulations accordingly. Additional strip malls, subdivisions, and parking lots will stretch further north from Kalispell and south from Whitefish, eliminating more and more rural land. We need to enable even moderately dense urban cores in our valley if we want to preserve the farms, public lands, and wide-open spaces that are so crucial to our rural character and way of life.

This vision of cities that allows more diverse housing and transportation types does not reduce individual freedoms to live far from others. Not everyone wants to live in an apartment or a walkable neighborhood. But many people do, and there is no good reason that the most expensive and land-intensive types of homes should be the only option easily allowed by our local laws.

Thousands of years ago, Heraclitus advised us that “the only constant is change.” We have agency in the way we respond to that change. A zero-sum mindset argues that we can maintain Montana’s character or provide decent housing, but not both. This is wrong. Enough housing for our workforce, concentrated in already-developed areas, can add value to our communities and lessen economic hardship instead of subtracting from our open lands. 

Tianna and her two children settled in Eureka, where she has found the community and lower cost of living she desires. “When I get to Dicky Lake leaving Whitefish, I feel a big weight lift off of me,” she says. While Tianna’s remote job gives her the freedom to make that decision, many others with jobs in the valley have been forced to live farther from work or leave entirely. Despite the challenges of growth, Tianna remains confident that a better path is possible. 

“Change is difficult for communities,” she says. “But there’s this weird dichotomy between ‘outsiders’ and Montanans. But that’s not how you build community. Everybody’s looking to live a good life and to raise their children in a good way.”

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