Board looks at revised 93 corridor plan

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

A revised U.S. 93 South Whitefish corridor plan that reduces the amount of commercial zoning along the highway will be considered by the Flathead County Planning Board next week.

The board meets Wednesday, May 10, to hold two public hearings related to the citizen-initiated corridor plan — one to change the zoning on parcels throughout the 490-acre area south of Whitefish and another to create a new overlay use district for about 1.5 miles of the highway corridor south of the Montana 40 intersection.

The proposed business service district zoning has changed considerably and now includes only properties that largely already have commercial land uses, county Planning Director Mark Mussman said. The area proposed for secondary business has decreased from 82 to 73 acres, and the proposed business service district has been reduced from 222 to 81 acres.

“The main change is the reduction in non-residential zoning,” Mussman said.

When the county Planning Board held its first public hearing on the corridor plan in January, the board received an onslaught of letters from the public, ranging from those in full support to property owners who questioned why they are being included in the corridor plan when their land doesn’t front U.S. 93.

The board didn’t make a recommendation and instead opted for a work session to get more feedback. After the March work session the board then directed the Planning Office to revise the plan and create a new staff report.

“A few items in the overlay text amendment have changed,” Mussman said, noting increased parking lot landscape standards. “But the main change is the reduction in non-residential zoning.”

The amount of acreage on the south end of the plan area that would change from agricultural with a 20-acre minimum lot size to suburban agricultural with a 2.5-acre minimum lot size would remain the same. The properties that would be diverted from the proposed business service district are proposed for suburban agricultural zoning with the 2.5-acre lot size.

The city of Whitefish has tried unsuccessfully to forge a collaborative planning effort with the county in the corridor plan area where Whitefish once had planning control. The county commissioners recently rejected the city’s offer to partner on the corridor plan.

Whitefish Planning Director Dave Taylor sent a letter to the county Planning Office April 28, weighing in on the revised plan.

“The city of Whitefish supports the reduction of new commercial from the earlier proposal, and we still applaud the South Whitefish Overlay zone with its additional development standards that mirror many of Whitefish’s,” Taylor said. “However, the city continues to oppose the proposed proliferation of commercial zoning south of Highway 40. We are also concerned that the plan still doesn’t adequately address traffic impacts, commercial strip development and consistency with Whitefish’s growth policy and zoning.”

Taylor said the city would like the county to consider eliminating the proposed new secondary business entirely because it is “contrary to Whitefish’s growth plans and cannot be adequately developed without sewer and water.”

The Whitefish City Council wants to conduct its own U.S. 93 South corridor study and is working to budget money for such a study in the coming year. The area in question is part of the former Whitefish “doughnut” area that was the focus of a years-long court battle for planning control the county ultimately won by way of a state Supreme Court ruling.

Property owners along the highway waited for years during the doughnut legal battle to get more zoning flexibility in how they can use or develop their land. Several years ago they retained independent land planner Dave DeGrandpre of Land Solutions, based in Charlo, to head up the corridor planning.

Taylor said the proposed overlay should include more intensive requirements to address traffic safety issues, including mandatory approach consolidation and required development of frontage or backage roads for any new development or subdivisions.

The Montana Department of Transportation also has weighed in on the revised plan, noting the number of approaches and additional vehicle trips further development of the highway corridor would create are among the state’s concerns.

The board meets at 6 p.m. in the second-floor conference room of the Earl Bennett Building, 1035 First Ave. W. in Kalispell.

For more information and a full agenda, visit https://flathead.mt.gov/planning_zoning/index.php.

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