Council refuses short-term rentals for apartment complex

Columbia Falls City Council on Monday voted against amending a conditional use permit that would allow a developer to potentially turn half of a proposed apartment complex into short-term rentals.

Mayor Don Barnhart was the only one to vote for the amended permit. He said he understood the concerns, but he was not convinced that allowing half the complex to be rented out on a short-term basis would impact the character of the neighborhood.

The council’s vote was in line with the recommendation of the planning board, which also believed the change would impact the character of the neighborhood.

Developer Toby Gilchrist originally proposed to build 36 apartments on a 2.25 acre lot on Meadow Lake Boulevard near the intersection of Best Way Drive.

The planning board previously approved this project through a rezoning and conditional use permit last year.

But since then, the cost of development has increased significantly, Gilchrist said, from about $5.3 million to $8.2 million.

To recoup his costs, he wanted to turn half of the development into condos, where, in turn, owners could rent them out on a short-term basis.

Gilchrist, however, originally pitched the project as a long-term apartment complex.

Council members noted that the surrounding community was mostly made up of residential homes, and the community in general has been loud and clear that Columbia Falls has enough short-term rentals.

With Glacier National Park on its doorstep, it currently has around 100.

Meanwhile, working-class people struggle to find homes or they lose their long-term rentals when landlords convert property to short-term rentals.

Council members noted that had there been one or two short-term rentals, demand might have been more palpable, but 18 could significantly change the character of the neighborhood.

City planner Eric Mulcahy noted to council that the project’s original permit and zoning change are still intact and that he can develop the property like all condominiums if he chooses. They simply cannot be short-term rentals after the council vote.

But the appeal of the property as condos remains uncertain. Directly to the south, the land is zoned industrial, and as such it is quite barren, with a multitude of heavy equipment parked on the land.

Then across the road is the site of the county’s green box, where people dump their trash.

In short, the surroundings of the field are not really aesthetic.

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