City eyes snow lot for affordable housing

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The city snow lot in downtown Whitefish is beign considered for future affordable housing. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

The city of Whitefish is officially showing interest in allowing its snow lot to be developed into affordable housing.

The city’s snow lot is at the corner of Columbia Avenue and Railway Street and has traditionally been where the city has dumped snow from downtown streets. A portion of the lot — which totals about 1.6 acres in size — last year was turned into a centralized recycling center.

City Council Oct. 2 gave its OK to begin a process that could open the snow lot up for future development. The city will have to take a number of steps to make that happen, including by updating the downtown master plan adopted in 2015 that designates the lot for future parking.

The lot has been included in the Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan task force discussions as a potential site for development of affordable workforce housing likely through a private-public partnership, city Finance Director Dana Smith noted.

“The snow lot has been discussed as a potential for affordable workforce housing, but it’s described as a parking lot in the city’s downtown master plan,” Smith said. “I believe this is going to be one of the No. 1 items coming forward from the strategic housing plan in November.”

As part of previous interest in using the snow lot for housing, city staff began preparing documents to amend the city’s tax increment finance district boundaries to include the snow lot. However, changing the TIF boundary requires changes to the city’s urban renewal project plan, which requires the city Planning Board to review the changes to ensure conformity with the city’s growth policy, a document that contains the downtown master plan.

Council will need to begin the process by amending the downtown master plan thus updating the growth policy to identify the snow lot as high-density residential or other similar uses that can be used for affordable workforce housing.

“We need to start with making an adjustment there,” Smith said.

After the downtown master plan is updated, then the city Planning Board can review plans to include the snow lot in the TIF district forwarding its recommendation to City Council for a final decision. Once the snow lot becomes part of the TIF district, then Council could direct TIF funds to be used for an affordable housing project on the property.

“If the boundary is extended to include the snow lot and the project is reaffirmed as an approved urban renewal project, the Council can then consider contributing tax increment funds to a project if a request comes forward,” Smith said.

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