Zoning advisory committee considers impacts of next big development
By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – Representatives from a new massive, proposed Big Sky development presented an application for a resort community to the Big Sky Zoning Advisory Committee at an Aug. 2 meeting. After six hours of presentations and deliberation, the committee said it lacked information to recommend approval or denial to Gallatin County.
Middle Fork Properties LLC, a Bozeman-based company acting as the landowner and development team for the proposed development known as Flatiron Montana, filed an application for a Planned Unit Development with Gallatin County on May 28. The Big Sky committee, which advises the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission, had five days to review what committee members describe as an “8-inch thick” binder of application materials.
The development would cover a 535-acre swath of land to the north and east of Andesite Mountain at the base of the Thunderwolf and Lone Moose chairlifts at Big Sky Resort, an area that spans parts of both Gallatin and Madison counties.
Plans for the project and its 1,440 units are subdivided into 14 separate building envelopes, a typical approach for a project of this size and desired flexibility, according to Mayana Rice, assistant planning director for Gallatin County Planning and Community Development. Flatiron’s proposal includes a hotel, residential properties, commercial spaces, a summer and winter trail system, lift access, and workforce housing for up to 900 people. Flatiron is estimated to take 20 years to complete.
Michael Schreiner, a principle and managing partner of Flatiron and owner of Middle Fork Properties, says the Flatiron development will help alleviate pressure on growing visitation to the resort.
“I think the base area of Big Sky, if you’ve spent any time up there, it’s bursting at the seams and to help take the load off the area this seems for us to be the perfect location to add dining and services to the Big Sky ski area,” Schreiner said in an Aug. 3 interview with EBS.
Schreiner and his partners purchased the land in 2019, and the Flatiron project is being designed and developed by Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., a company based in Whistler, British Columbia, that has helped develop over 500 resorts in the last 40 years.
Schreiner says community is key to the project, as is pedestrian access; the layout is specifically designed, he says, so that minimal car use is necessary once you arrive.
The Flatiron land parcel is currently zoned for resort and open space preservation, and requires a Conditional Use Application in order to approve the Planned Unit Development. A PUD establishes project density, building envelopes (or subdivisions), general circulation plan, building and parking standards, but is not subject to standard zoning requirements, allowing the developer flexibility as they build.
In addition to the PUD application, Middle Fork Properties, LLC also applied for four variances that would allow changes to the design of street access, pedestrian walkways and the slopes on which construction will occur.
At the end of the meeting, the five-member committee unanimously agreed that with little time to review a project of Flatiron’s magnitude, they would recommend a continuance for Gallatin County allowing themselves, the zoning committee, as well as the public 30 days to submit questions to the applicant before recommending either approval or denial of the application. Additional public comments will also be accepted during this time.
“I believe the scale of this project … [is] a major impact on this community at large, not just the neighboring property owners,” said committee member Philip Kedrowski during an Aug. 3 phone interview with EBS. “A lot of people would care to have some input or at least know what’s going on … because it’s going to dramatically affect us all.”
Two members of the public as well as committee members asked questions during the meeting about the proposed development’s impacts on traffic and wildlife along with water quality and quantity.
The Middle Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River cuts through the lot, and Middle Fork Properties consultant Chris Leonard called the tributary “the crown jewel of Flatiron” during his presentation.
The Middle Fork is a crucial component to the community’s water source and according to the Department of Environmental Quality, is currently listed on the state of Montana’s list of impaired waterways due to excess nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. Members of the committee and the public raised questions about how the Flatiron development could further impair the Middle Fork.
“Anytime you introduce human impacts to a natural environment, there are going to be impacts to water, wildlife and other natural resources,” Emily O’Connor, Gallatin River Task Force’s conservation director, told EBS on Aug. 3. “There are ways to minimize impacts, but those measures need to be carefully designed and implemented to work effectively at the right scale for the size of the development.”
GRTF joined a handful of local organizations that submitted public comment in the form of a letter, voicing concerns over how a major development like Flatiron might impact Big Sky’s water system. Specific concerns included the river’s current load of sediment, nutrients and pathogens as well as E. coli, all factors influenced by resort development, recreation, landscape maintenance, wastewater and septic systems, according to the letter.
Middle Fork Properties has been receptive to GRTF’s existing Middle Fork restoration project, which is located directly within the proposed development, according to O’Connor.
The development’s connection to the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District would be critical, O’Connor added, as advanced centralized treatment systems are often best suited for developments of this size. Middle Fork Properties will present their development at the next BSWSD board meeting on Aug. 17.
Public commenters indicated understanding of the project’s benefits but also expressed their concerns.
“I am not against development as long as the work is applied responsibly, justly and with transparency,” said Joanna McCoy, whose property borders the development area. McCoy has been a part-time Big Sky resident for 30 years, a full-time resident for two, and is the VP of the Antler Ridge Homeowner’s Association.
“I can understand the economic impact that this large project can have on the community,” McCoy said. “At the same time, I understand the other enormous impacts that are getting ready to unfold.”
McCoy also expressed frustration about what she called a “lack of communication.” Although Leonard approached the HOA in February with preliminary plans, she said, there was no communication between then and July 22 when they were made aware of the Aug. 2 meeting.
The official hearing for the Flatiron development project will take place on Aug. 26 at 1 p.m. when the Gallatin County Planning and Zoning Commission can accept the committee’s recommendation of a continuance or can approve or deny the project. The hearing will take place at the Gallatin County Courthouse and will also be available virtually.
The commission will make the final decision on the PUD. If the PUD is approved, the commission will also approve or deny the four variances.
“What’s at stake is significant enough that someone will find a way to get this thing moving forward,” committee member Steve Johnson told EBS in a phone interview. “Too much is at stake here. Our concern as a local group is that it’s done right.”
Members of the public can submit comment before the Aug. 26 hearing by emailing email@example.com.
Bella Butler contributed reporting to this story.