A group of landowners along U.S. Highway 93 South just outside of Whitefish are asking Flathead County to adopt a corridor plan and zoning amendment that could guide future development for the area.
The plan covers a 490-acre area from Montana 40 south for about 1.5 miles along a stretch of Highway 93 ending near North Valley Refuse.
Dave DeGrandpre, a land use planner with Land Solutions, LLC of Charlo, is representing property owners in the corridor. He estimates that there about 85 land owners along the highway in the plan area.
“The goal is to plan for the future, while also recognizing the different issues and constraints of the area,” he said.
The plan has been submitted to the county and is expected to be reviewed by the county Planning Board at its January meeting. The board will hold a public hearing on the plan and request for zoning text amendment.
The area is part of the former planning “doughnut” outside of the city limits. A Montana Supreme Court ruling in 2014 ceded planning control of the doughnut from the city to the county following a long-running legal battle over its control.
DeGrandpre said landowners in the area have long been looking for a corridor plan that would guide future land uses and recognize what’s already happening in the corridor. He said neither the city or county were able to provide that type of planning for the area, so the landowners took it upon themselves to draft a plan to submit to the county.
“They said this needs a closer look,” he said of the landowners who he began working with in earnest in June to craft the plan.
County Planning Director Mark Mussman said the county has long recognized that the zoning in the corridor does not reflect the land uses already occurring there and that could hinder potential development.
“It’s definitely feasible that it could go through the process and get approved,” he said of the plan. “This plan will not open the flood gate to development. This is a good place to start and it respects some of the city’s concerns for that area.”
The plan says the aim is to examine the potential for permitting a wider mix of land uses than are allowed under the county’s current zoning regulations for the area. The plan notes that while the county has several zoning options, they “lack specific policies to mitigate the scale, form, intensity and traffic safety needs of development to levels that are appropriate to this location, and that meet the goals and policies” of the county and city growth policies. It goes on to say that the zoning in the plan area is out of date.
“It only marginally reflects existing land uses and lot sizes and provides minimal opportunities for development,” the plan says. “The zoning does not address design, buffering, signage and other elements that are necessary to maintain the appearance and function of this gateway into Whitefish.”
DeGrandpre said in developing the plan he looked closely at the city and county growth policies. He recently submitted the plan to the city of Whitefish to solicit comments from the city Planning Board, which will hold a workshop on the item at its November meeting.
Whitefish Planning Director Dave Taylor said the city’s growth policy calls for developing a corridor plan for this area. On Monday, Taylor said he was still reviewing the proposed plan and also intends to meet with Whitefish City Council to get their input on the plan.
“We will try to take a look to see how it will impact us,” he said. “This is a critical entrance to the city. There are some basic things we will be looking at.”
Mussman agreed that how the corridor develops in the future is important to ensure that the section of Highway 93 from the very north end of Kalispell to Montana 40 doesn’t become a strip of development. He said he sat in on one of the meetings with landowners while the plan was being developed.
“Most of the owners were people who live there and they expressed a desire to be able to do something with their property in the future when they’re ready to move on,” he said. “The plan allows for non-residential development with design standards that are unique to the county’s standards. This is will ensure that it remains attractive and is not strip development.”
DeGrandpre said there is three main concerns facing the corridor.
“The future development, traffic and safety, and they don’t want it to become strip development,” he said. “No one wants it to become a strip development all the way from Whitefish to Kalispell.”
The plan calls for a special overlay zone with strict development standards that appear to be consistent with Whitefish zoning standards for landscaping, buffers, site plan requirements, architectural design, sign standards, parking, and dark skies lighting.
The plan also calls for changing the zoning on most properties in the area and then the zoning overlay would place specific standards on the properties. What is currently zoned AG-20 would become SAG-5, and what is SAG-5 would for the most part become business service district, which is similar to the Whitefish business service district zoning that the county recently adopted to match similar zoning in the city.
DeGrandpre said the change in zoning is recommended because the property’s current zoning doesn’t reflect the land uses that are taking place there.
“The vast majority of the properties don’t meet the zoning,” he said. “They don’t reflect the nature of the corridor.”
The plan calls for the northern portion of the area closest to Whitefish to be set aside for commercial uses as an extension of the commercial area on the south end of Whitefish. Moving south the uses would be non-retail limited commercial, light industrial, or small professional offices. The southern end would remain more for suburban and recreational uses.
While the city planning department will be reviewing the corridor plan in-depth, Taylor did point to the extension of the commercial development along 93 as an area of concern.
“It looks like it has some good points and challenging points,” he said of the plan.
Taylor said one of the other major concerns the city has is that there was “no real public involvement” prior to the plan being submitted. He noted that there was no open house or opportunity to engage the community other than the stakeholders in the corridor, and the main opportunity for the public to participate will come during review of the final draft at the county and city planning board meetings.
“Those are critical elements to the success of any major plan, and it was not done,” he said.
Taylor expects the city planning board to compile its comments on the corridor plan during its Nov. 17 workshop.
The plan also calls for transportation improvements, including frontage roads for commercial development, unified site development and consolidated approaches to minimize highway access points, lower highway speeds and easements for a future bike and pedestrian trail.
DeGrandpre said it will take the efforts of the Montana Department of Transportation, the county, the city and landowners to address traffic and safety concerns in the corridor.
“The transportation recommendations are something we hope to address,” he said.
The city Planning Board will hold a workshop on the corridor plan at its Nov. 17 meeting at 6 p.m. at interim Whitefish City Hall.
The county Planning Board is set to consider the plan at its Jan. 11 meeting at 6 p.m. at the Earl Bennett Building in Kalispell.