Citing its lack of compatibility with downtown, Whitefish City Council Tuesday denied a proposal by Fresh Life Church to construct a mixed-use building on Central Avenue.
It’s an issue that drew about 170 letters prior to the meeting and resulted in about an hour worth of public comment to Council, with community members falling on both sides.
Councilor Richard Hildner estimated that he spent more time on the request than on any other during his tenure on Council.
“I was stuck by seeing names of my friends and neighbors on both sides of this,” he said.
Council voted 5-1 to deny the request by the church for a conditional use permit that sought to construct a new 11,200-square-foot mixed-use building on Central Avenue on three city lots that include the lot where Lakestream Fly Shop stood for many years at 334 Central Ave. Councilor Katie Williams voted against the denial.
John Mark Creamer, operations pastor at Fresh Life, presented the church’s plans noting the building would include several retail spaces along Central Avenue and a church set to the back of the building. He said the church planned to sell the retail spaces to for-profit businesses that he claimed would generate more than $18,000 in annual property tax revenue for the city.
“The split-level design was not intended to circumvent requirements that a church not be on ground level,” he said. “We will ensure that the back with the church is not at ground floor level. The building was designed with a mass to match the neighborhood.”
The church also offered to adjust its service times to help alleviate parking concerns about conflicts with two other nearby churches already meeting on Sundays, and in the six years of holding services in other downtown locations parking has never been an issue, Creamer noted.
“The church attendees will be downtown visiting stores and restaurants,” he said pointing out that the Fresh Life congregation could benefit Whitefish.
Council disagreed, however, that the church was the right fit. Topping the list concerns by Council seemed to be the building’s lack of retail space to be in compliance with the WB-3 zoning and the city’s downtown master plan, and thus also its lack of compatibility with the community character as Central Avenue is “the retail street in downtown Whitefish.”
The building was planned to include several retail spaces along the street front and the church in the back, in a space seven-feet below ground.
Hilnder said the city’s downtown master plan calls for edge-to-edge retail, and the building design does not put commercial or multi-family residential units above the ground floor retail.
“This is not in compliance with the growth policy,” he said. “The church portion precludes full use of the building in a way that would strengthen downtown.”
Parking also remained a concern with Council noting that the project doesn’t address concerns regarding the availability of parking adequate to serve the congregation without having an impact to neighboring businesses and residential areas.
During the public comment, most who spoke asked Council to deny the request saying downtown is not the right location for the church.
“Fresh Life is a great addition to Whitefish, but not here,” said Turner Askew. “They need to be out on Highway 93 where they can have room to grow.”
Tim Murphy, whose State Farm Insurance agency operates next door to the planned building, agreed noting that the building doesn’t fit with the downtown master plan.
“Is this the highest and best use of the last premium spot in downtown?” he asked.
Speaking in favor of the church’s proposal, Colton Born, pastor Fresh Life’s Whitefish campus, asked Council to consider what the building could add to the community.
“It adds life to the downtown,” he said. “This is our attempt to grow and inject life into the community.”
A CUP is required for buildings larger than 7,500-square-feet in the downtown. The Old Town Central District zoning doesn’t allow a church at ground-level.
Fresh Life was founded in Kalispell in 2007 by the Rev. Levi Lusko and has since expanded to include campuses across Montana and out-of-state. In Kalispell, it has purchased several historic buildings and is also constructing a building downtown. In addition, it purchased the Montana Building in Kalispell in 2016 and canceled leases with business tenants there.