Proposed high-density development will increase traffic, threaten wetlands

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City Council is currently reviewing a proposed growth policy amendment which, if approved, could pave the way for a plan to build a 70-acre mixed-use project and bring more high-density development to the western side of Highway 93 South.

Half of the development area consists of a large wetland complex, which provides wildlife habitat for a diverse array of species that move between the wetland area, Blanchard Lake and beyond. During the plan’s early stages, the developers wanted to build housing on both sides of the wetland. Facing pressure from the surrounding neighbors, the developers backed off — for now — but the wetland would still be included in the developer’s future plans.

Additionally, according to the developer’s traffic study conducted in October (not exactly peak season for traffic in Whitefish), the project would produce up to 4,327 additional vehicle trips per day and may require a new traffic signal along Highway 93 South. These traffic impacts would likely accelerate the city’s plan to build a road to connect Highway 93 with Karrow Avenue, resulting in more traffic and increasing pressure for sprawling development in the rural and agricultural areas along Karrow and Blanchard Lake Road.

The plan would also expand the already oversupplied WB-2 secondary business zone along Highway 93, opening the door for more strip development — ask your favorite downtown business owner what they think of that idea.

The development team will tell you that these impacts (and more) are worth it because they’re promising to provide 10 percent affordable housing and, indeed, we can all agree that our community needs to ensure that the hardworking folks who work here can also live here. Perhaps the developer will build the units as promised, or perhaps they will just utilize the city’s cash-in-lieu of payment alternative to building. Regardless, even if the units are built, the Whitefish Housing Authority has set the “affordable” rental rate for a two-bedroom apartment in the developer’s last project at $982 per month. How is that even close to affordable for single parent making $12 per hour as a housekeeper, $14 per hour as a front desk clerk, or even $18 per hour as a welder?

In short, this proposed growth policy amendment fails to include the goals and policies necessary to ensure that any proposed development project in this area is consistent with the growth policy’s community vision for the city. While the Council has provided strong leadership to help this city grow, through projects such as the downtown master plan and our robust trail system, it is too often the case that a developer’s proposal is approved, not on its merits, but because the Council claims their “hands are tied.”

In reality, the Council has broad discretion to deny this plan until the developer makes a real commitment to mitigate the project’s negative impacts to our community. We need smart, reasoned planning if we are going to both facilitate sustainable economic growth and realize our community’s shared vision — embodied in the growth policy — to manage traffic and preserve and enhance wildlife habitat, rural areas, traditional neighborhoods, and the social and economic diversity that makes our community special. We can and must do better.

Please let your voice be heard at the council meeting on July 16 or send a letter to mhowke@cityofwhitefish.org.

Cheryl Watkins is the president of the South Whitefish Neighborhood Association.

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