Despite concerns from neighbors, Council rezones snow lot for affordable housing

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

A handful of folks are speaking out against potential plans by the city to develop its snow lot for affordable housing.

Saying multi-family housing doesn’t fit with the neighborhood, about a half dozen folks submitted letters to the city and told City Council April 2 during a public hearing that they don’t want the lot developed.

The snow lot, named because the city stores snow there removed from downtown, is at the corner of Columbia Avenue and Railway Street. It has also been used as a central recycling site and sometimes for overflow parking.

Nancy Kireilis said the streets around the lot are very narrow and already fill with cars from events, and adding multi-family housing to the lot will only make the parking situation worse.

“In the morning you have lines of cars waiting to drop their children off at the school,” she said. “We have to park a lot on the street, and if you put an apartment building there then we won’t even be able to park on the street.”

Jon Carlson told Council he’d rather see the lot be developed with single-family homes.

“That is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood,” he said.

In a letter to Council, Jen Follett McCaw and Bill McCaw, along with several family members, note their family has owned property on Railway Street for 81 years and has an even longer history in Whitefish. They write that the snow lot has great value to provide overflow parking for many events that take place in nearby Depot Park, and streets in the neighborhood are already crowded by cars during such events.

“Having a multi-storied, apartment building in a neighborhood of modest single family homes, not only seems aesthetically in appropriate, but will also create parking, traffic and therefore safety issues,” they wrote.

Judy Gephardt said she has heard from many of her neighbors that are concerned that a three-story building in that location would not fit with the character of the neighborhood and they have a fear about what high-density means.

“We do know there is a need for affordable housing, but there is also a need to respect the neighbors,” she said

After hearing comments, City Council last week voted to rezone the vacant lot from industrial and warehousing to high density multi-family residential. About 1.47 acres of the property is being rezoned because the westerly 30 feet of the property includes right-of-way for Columbia Avenue.

The Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan identifies development of the snow storage lot into 30 to 40 workforce housing units as a top strategic priority. Such residential development is not a permitted or conditional use in an industrial and warehousing district and therefore required the zone change.

Though there are no concrete plans for an affordable housing project on the site, Council has been taking steps prepare for such development.

Councilor Richard Hildner thanked neighbors of the lot for commenting on potential plans.

“It’s critical for you to stay in the loop,” he said. “It’s really important to keep the community open to what’s happening.”

“The reason I’m in favor of this that we’re are plain out of options,” he added. “We need to rezone this before we can look at options. This is what we have to do to get a handle on affordable housing.”

Councilor Katie Williams also thanked neighbors and asked them to continue to be part of the public process.

“We want to keep working toward a product we can all be proud of,” she said. “We want to make it blend into the neighborhood.”

City Council also approved an ordinance to amend the Whitefish Urban Renewal Plan modifying the boundaries of the Urban Renewal District to include the snow lot and approved affordable housing as an urban renewal project.

How exactly the snow lot may be used for an affordable housing project remains to be seen.

Williams, who has been working on the city’s affordable housing issue for sometime, noted that the city has three main options to explore when it comes to developing the snow lot for affordable housing. The city can continue to own the property and construct the housing, city can sell the property to an affordable housing developer or the city can put the property into a land trust setting restrictions for a developer to construct housing.

Although Council is seeking more information and would need to vote before selecting a option, it did want to know more about the land trust option.

Williams said it may end up as the best option for the city.

“We don’t have the money to pay for the project and we don’t have the staff to be in the landlord business,” she said.

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