Big plans 

Tabled application gets developers' attention

Big Mountain Resort may have finally steered its way around one of the obstacles standing between it and a slew of proposed real estate developments. After Big Mountain’s owner, Winter Sports, Inc., turned in a re-zoning application in early June, it watched in dismay as the Whitefish City-County Planning Board tabled the request, saying the document lacked necessary information and provided insufficient grounds upon which to proceed.

One sticking point was the uncertain future of Big Mountain Road. In June, the Flathead County Commission withdrew $6.9 million in funds allotted to the reconstruction of the only paved access leading up to the ski area. Before it recommends approval of Big Mountain’s re-zoning request—which would open some 466 acres of forest land eligible for residential and limited commercial development—the planning board wants to know what is going to happen with the road.

On July 29, developers met with the Montana Department of Transporta-tion’s Ray Harbin, who confirmed that the previously stalled road reconstruction project is once again up and running.

Harbin said, “We have come to an agreement and we have acquired seven parcels” of land needed to build a new stretch of road from Ptarmigan Village to the entrance of Big Mountain. Actors Jim Neighbors and Carol Burnett are two of the landowners MDOT has approached in its effort to strike a deal. The highway department must still secure agreements with other landowners, but Harbin is optimistic that construction on the new stretch of road could begin as early as next spring.

The good news about the road came just hours before Winter Sports and developers backing a collection of mountaintop subdivisions hosted a tour for members of the planning board.

After a quick briefing at the Kintla Lodge, the board piled into a passenger van and drove up Northern Lights Drive to where Winter Sports is thinking about emulating a feature found at Vail Mountain Resort in Colorado.

“One of the things we’ve contemplated,” said WSI President Michael Collins, asking the group not to get the wrong idea, “we call it ‘Adventure Ridge.’ It’s a Vail term.”

Vail’s Adventure Ridge offers laser tag and ski biking—activities to distract the kids while mom and dad make powder turns or sip Chardonnay in the hot tub. Big Mountain is aiming for the same target audience: families looking for ways to diversify their vacation fun. In addition to snow tubing, Big Mountain may also bring back its half-pipe.

For Flathead locals, this was some of the best news to come out of the recent tour. Two winters have passed since road development displaced the old half-pipe. Now, with Adventure Ridge in the works, the pipe could make a comeback, finding a new home near Chair 3 or at some other location on the mountain.

Half-pipes don’t sell real estate, but they are “a healthy component of any ski area,” said Big Mountain Communications Manager Dan Virkstis. Ski lifts, however, can help sell a lot of property, and that’s why there’s a new one strategically placed amid the proposed new development on Big Mountain.

The base of the lift will sit near the old gelande jump, just above Big Mountain Road and adjacent to homes in the Elk Highlands development. This collection of 59 single-family homes will sit tucked on a ridge directly overlooking Whitefish Lake. Ski easements will allow homeowners to slide directly from their heated river rock patios to the chairlift. In the summer, these ski easements might double as walking trails. The Elk Highlands neighborhood also plans to protect at least 89 acres of open space.

“This is in order to have something that the whole community up on Big Mountain can really enjoy,” said Ken Lockard, one of the developers pushing the Elk Highlands project. Diplomatically stepping around the touchy issue of how real estate development may ultimately change the general public’s habits on Big Mountain, Lockard insisted that Elk Highlands would not shut itself off from the rest of the community once million-dollar homes begin to appear.

“This could be a real positive thing to the whole Whitefish area,” added fellow Elk Highlands developer Tom Penaluna. “It’s not going to be apartments, it’s not going to be condos, it’s not going to be bed and breakfasts.”

Penaluna, whose company is based in Iowa, but who has kept a home in the Flathead for the last 12 years, said the proposed development on Big Mountain has gotten “a bum rap.”

“Some of the original information that came out was only preliminary information,” said Penaluna.

Initial concerns about Big Mountain Road appear to be resolved, but several other items remain concerns for the planning board. Namely, the board still doesn’t know the total number of residential units certain developers plan to build if the property is re-zoned.

“We need to know what that number is,” said Planning Board Chairman Mike Jopek, who thinks the initial decision to table the plan really got the resort’s attention. “Big Mountain figured out that we’re passionate about planning in Whitefish.”

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