Monday, May 17, 2021

Planning Board recommends denial of outdoor recreation park zoning request

Lake County Leader | April 15, 2021 7:45 AM

During a lengthy, emotional meeting that began Wednesday night (April 14) and wrapped up early Thursday morning, the Lake County Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend the county deny an Upper West Shore zoning amendment request that is part of a proposal to create an outdoor recreation park on about 17 acres between Lakeside and Rollins.

Torsten and Jessica Wedel are asking the board to change zoning regulations so they can build the park on the west side of U.S. 93, just south of Goose Bay and Table Bay. The Wedels say they aim to provide family-friendly activities for both locals and tourists outside the more popular areas of the Flathead Valley.

The Lake County Commission is expected to consider the proposal during its May 18 meeting. Planning Board member Steve Russo, an Upper West Shore resident, said all written comments the board received prior to Wednesday’s meeting, as well as public comments heard Wednesday night, will be forwarded to the county commissioners. Russo recused himself from the board’s deliberations on the matter Wednesday and did not cast a vote.

The meeting was conducted remotely via Zoom. It began at 7 p.m., though the Wedels’ request wasn’t taken up until about 9:30 p.m. The Zoom session’s number of participants peaked at about 160 people.

The proposed amendment to the county's Upper West Shore Zoning District regulations would allow for a range of commercial outdoor recreation activities, including nature viewing, ax throwing, outdoor laser tag, miniature golf, gem mining, rope courses, zip lines, summer day camps, horseback riding, tubing hills and "mountain rides."

The amended regulations would specifically prohibit commercial swimming pools, water parks, bowling alleys, RV parks and commercial resorts.

Currently, only a few commercial activities, such as vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfast properties, are permitted in the area subject to the proposed change, known as Subdistrict C.

The Wedels addressed the board twice, once before the public comment session and again just prior to the board’s final deliberations. Jessica Wedel spoke both times and said the public’s image of the proposal had been tainted by misinformation being spread on social media.

"We are not planning a theme park, waterpark, etc.," Torsten Wedel wrote in an email to The Daily Interlake last week. "We believe that the possibilities with this text amendment would provide diversity to the lake activities and provide ease to the congested lake access points. We think diverse activities help with the overcrowding of the current popular areas."

The Wedels say they haven't yet settled on the array of activities their park would offer, and they did not elaborate on their definition of “mountain rides” Wednesday night.

The Wedels, who live in Stevensville, head the North American branch of Wiegand, a German company that manufactures slides, toboggan runs and unpowered roller coasters that many ski resorts use to attract business during the warmer months. The couple said Wiegand is not involved in their plans for the outdoor park.

Wednesday’s meeting was opened to public comments just before 10 p.m. The board heard from 45 people, 44 of whom expressed opposition to the Wedels’ proposal.

Opponents largely focused on traffic and public safety issues. That stretch of Highway 93 is considered one of the most dangerous in the state, and many argued that adding a busy stop where people are frequently entering or exiting the highway would compound the problems.

Also, emergency response times to the area are not great. Ambulances responding to medical emergencies often are required to travel from Polson, depending on the situation. And the fire departments in nearby Rollins and Lakeside are volunteer departments.

Opponents also cited concerns over the effects on the area’s abundant wildlife, and a potential rise in trespassing and general crime the project might bring.

Many speakers also gave detailed accounts of their families’ histories in the area and urged the board to stick to zoning rules that were established to maintain a rural lifestyle free of widespread commercial enterprise.

Around 11 p.m. the board briefly considered suspending public comment and resuming the session at a later date. However, after noting the difficulties of scheduling another session, members decided to keep going. Public comment wrapped up around 11:30 p.m. Board members then presented their final thoughts on the matter, with each expressing their intent to oppose the zoning change request.

The members of the volunteer board then went to work on their final recommendation, meticulously revising a findings of fact document for another hour or so to legally justify their recommendation.

At 12:50 a.m. board member Lee Perrin of Jette made an official motion to recommend denial of the request. That was followed by the unanimous vote, which was witnessed by the 52 participants still listening in on the Zoom session.

Daily Inter Lake Assistant Editor Chad Sokol contributed to this report.