Board splits on recommending affordable housing for snow lot

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The Whitefish Planning Board split in its decision last week on a preliminary step in the process that could lead to affordable housing being constructed on the city’s snow lot downtown.

The Planning Board gave a positive recommendation on the matter, but split 4-2 on the vote. Planning board members Rebecca Norton and Judy Hessellund both voted in opposition.

Norton said putting affordable housing on the site is like putting a “Band-Aid on a really big wound.”

“I’ve never thought that was a good place for housing,” she said. “That location is necessary for events for overflow parking. This may not be the best solution in the longterm.”

The city of Whitefish is proposing to amend its downtown master plan to show the future land use for the snow lot near Columbia Avenue and Railway Street as designated for multifamily residential housing rather than parking. Council will hold a public hearing on the item at its Tuesday, Jan. 16 meeting.

Planning Director Dave Taylor said the change in the future land use map is the first step in a long process that may lead to affordable housing. The site is currently zoned for industrial and it would also have to be rezoned before it could be used for housing.

“It can continued to be used for snow and for parking until it’s developed,” he said.

During the public hearing, Greg Gunderson who lives in the neighborhood of the snow lot, questioned whether the site would be appropriate for multifamily housing when the neighborhood around it is single-family homes.

“You need to think about the ramifications of this,” he said. “I’m concerned about what exactly is affordable housing. This is a unique neighborhood.”

City Councilor and Planning Board member Richard Hildner said the change to the city’s downtown master plan allows the city to use the site for something other than an industrial use.

“This is merely a change to allow other things than for us to put snow there,” he said.

The Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan identifies development of the snow lot into workforce housing units as a top strategic priority. City Council in August directed city staff to begin the process to extend the tax increment financing boundary to include the snow lot so that TIF funds could be allocated to a possible housing project. The process to extend the TIF boundaries requires the Planning Board to review modification to the urban renewal plan to ensure conformity with the growth policy.

Hilary Lindh, city Long Range Planner, notes in her staff report that use of the snow lot for multifamily residential purposes would increase the diversity of residential types and densities east of Kalispell Avenue, and it could serve as a transition from the industrial railroad uses north and west of the lot to the residential uses to the south, which would “help maintain the character and small town feel of the community.”

Benefits of the change are listed as providing workforce housing, promoting the pedestrian character of downtown, promoting infill and adding diversity to the types of residential units downtown.

Costs include the loss of the vacant lot to be used for overflow and employee parking downtown. In addition, the city will have to find another lot for snow storage. Alternatives being considered including Memorial Park and the city shop on West 18th Street. Public Works estimates the cost to haul snow to Memorial Park at about 1.7 times the cost of using the current snow lot and the cost to use the city shop would be about four times the current cost. The increase comes primarily in fuel and trucking costs, the staff report notes.

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