City asks county to partner on 93 corridor

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Cars drive along U.S. Highway 93 South just outside the city limits south of Montana 40.

The city of Whitefish has formally asked Flathead County to work with it on creating a corridor plan for U.S. Highway 93 South, but at least one county commissioner is unwilling to partner with the city on a joint plan.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld recently wrote a letter addressed to the commissioners asking them to partner to create a joint corridor plan for the area.

“We believe that a jointly conceived and adopted plan for that area offers the best opportunity to address all issues so that growth for the next 20 years in this area can be managed appropriately,” Muhlfeld said in the Jan. 24 letter.

Commissioner Phil Mitchell said Monday he is willing to take input from the city on a corridor plan before the county, but he will not work with the city to create a joint plan.

“We’re open to taking their input,” he said. “But we’re not going to spend two years working on a corridor study. We will take all input — we represent all of Flathead Valley.”

“They can come to our meeting and tell us what they want,” he added.

A private corridor plan for Highway 93 south of Montana 40 has been submitted to the county. The county Planning Board is set to hold a March 8 work session on the plan.

Mitchell noted that he is only one of three commissioners representing the county, though he said he plans to draft a response to the city later this week to present to the other two commissioners.

Commissioner Gary Krueger on Monday said he had just returned to the office from being away and hadn’t yet been briefed on the matter. As of presstime, Commissioner Pam Holmquist had not returned a phone call seeking comment.

Muhlfeld’s letter notes that the city is preparing to commence with a corridor plan for Highway 93 South in the next few months and says a successful plan will require concerted coordination between the city, county and the Montana Department of Transportation.

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 between the two governments over its control.

Mitchell said Whitefish could have control over planning for the area outside the city limits if it had been more willing to work with the county in the past.

“[The city] lost the doughnut with the lawsuit and I’m pissed about how it affects it now,” he said. “They could have had control over that area.”

Part of that plan before the county, includes a zoning map amendment and text amendment to rezone about 490 acres of agricultural zoned land along the highway to allow for more commercial development.

In his letter, Muhlfeld said the issues of transportation, land use, sewer and water availability and aesthetics are all paramount in such an important corridor and should be addressed prior to making any zoning changes.

“The city is concerned that making such sweeping changes that greatly increases commercial opportunities and density without the benefit of a corridor plan is short sighted,” he says in the letter.

Mitchell said he agrees that the current plan before the county needs adjustment and he hoped that would happen as the plan is looked at by the county Planning Board and eventually the commissioners.

“There is some changes that need to happen,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t stay the same.”

He did say he is willing to take suggestions from the city on the plan, but wants specifics about what the city “can live with and can’t live with.”

“We need reasonable input,” he said. “We need actual items they want changed.”

Muhlfeld acknowledges, in the letter, that the city and county haven’t always seen “eye to eye on development issues,” but says this is a chance to set aside those differences to work together.

Noting his time serving on the Whitefish City Council before being elected as county commissioner, Mitchell claimed the city has long ignored requests by private landowners to create a corridor plan for Highway 93 South.

In his letter, Muhlfeld said that while financial cooperation would be helpful on a plan, the more important coordination is between city and county planning staffs. The city estimates that a plan could be initiated as soon as March and could be completed in six to eight months. The city has said a corridor plan for the area along Highway 93 inside the city limits and potentially south of Montana 40 could cost up to $100,000.

“Only by working together can we best plan the future of our beautiful valley and minimize travel delays and traffic congestion on our highways,” Muhlfeld said.

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