Cities want to work together on corridor planning

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Leaders of the three incorporated cities in Flathead County seem to want more cooperation with the county when it comes to longterm land use planning.

Several representatives from Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls expressed the need to cooperatively plan for future growth and development during a joint meeting last week with the county commissioners. How that cooperation might occur remains to be seen. The meeting held on the fifth Monday of the month is scheduled periodically to discuss issues concerning the local government entities.

Whitefish City Manager Chuck Stearns introduced the agenda item labeled as “joint corridor plans or neighborhood plans.” Stearns said the discussion item was intended to see if from a policy perspective there is an “appetite” for such plans where boundaries of the different government entities intersect.

“We would like some clarity,” he said. “We’ll stop asking if there is no interest, but if there is then it might be worth pursuing.”

Whitefish Councilor Andy Feury pointed out that there are 11 stoplights between Kalispell Regional Medical Center and Whitefish, which he said results in a 30-minute commute between the two cities. He noted that a recent study shows that 56 percent of workers in Whitefish don’t live in the city resulting in a “highly mobile workforce.” He gave an example of a parent who has to spend money each week for an extra hour of daycare because of the time it takes to travel along U.S. Highway 93.

“We need to look at all of the citizens and see how the effects of corridor development affects their daily lives — it affects everybody in this valley,” he said. “We are seeing all the cities growing together. We do need to work cooperatively to find a plan that will benefit not just the property owners, but all of us who have to drive those roads everyday.”

Leaders from Kalispell and Columbia Falls both seemed receptive to the idea. County commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist attended the meeting, but neither made comments on the issue.

Following the meeting, Commissioner Phil Mitchell said city leaders are welcome to comment on planning matters within the county.

“They can come to all of our meetings,” he said.

Commissioner Gary Krueger was not in attendance at the joint meeting. Reached by phone on Monday, Krueger 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.

During the joint meeting last week, Whitefish Councilor Jen Frandsen said the county and cities need to work together to improve the roads already in place.

“We’re at a critical point, some of our corridors we may be a little too late on, and there are still some that if we had the right long-term planning I think we could go in the right direction,” she said. “It will save us millions of taxpayer dollars instead of doing bypasses by focusing on the corridors that we have.”

Leaders from Kalispell and Columbia Falls both seemed receptive to the idea. County commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist attended the meeting, but neither made comments on the issue.

Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson agreed noting that the U.S. Highway 93 bypass has shaved 15 minutes off his own drive to work.

“I understand the concern in the traffic corridors,” he said. “It’s a balancing act we’re going to have to come up with.”

The question, he said, is how to make sure planning happens smartly in the future.

“At some point in time, 50 years down the road, the cities may very well be growing together,” he said. “For a long time there was a resistance to that and that resistance held back on the planning.”

Columbia Falls Councilor Mike Shepard said long-term planning is important.

“We need to coordinate with the city managers and the commissioners on this,” he said.

Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart said he thought there is “pretty good consensus” that the entities wanted to work to create long-term plans.

Whitefish Councilor Richard Hildner said he wanted to make sure the issue isn’t dropped.

“This may be an opportune time for the four jurisdictions to sit down and start that planning process,” he said. “This may be a serious agenda item for the next interlocal group meeting.”

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