After a late change to a proposed land use plan for property along the city’s southern gateway, Whitefish City Council last week opted to delay a decision on the matter.
Whitefish 57 LLC and Eagle Enterprises are requesting a subarea plan that includes 70 acres fronting U.S. Highway 93 South between JP Road and Park Knoll Lane. The developer is requesting both commercial and residential development on the property.
Council voted 4-2 to table the matter until July 16, but also keep the public hearing open. Councilors Ryan Hennen and Katie Williams voted in opposition.
Just prior to Council’s July 2 meeting the developer shifted plans eliminating a request to designate a portion of the area multi-family residential.
Instead the developer is asking for 21.5 acres to be designated as urban residential, which city zoning codes describe as for traditional neighborhoods that are mostly one and two-family residential, but could include lower density multi-family housing, for the entire center portion of the plan area that is currently listed as suburban.
Previously, the developers were seeking to place a 9.5-acre section in the middle of the plan area as zoned for high density multi-family residential and for the 11.9 acres to the west of that as one-family residential.
Councilor Frank Sweeney said changes to the plan that came the Friday before the Monday meeting required time for all involved to digest, but were responsive to the concerns previously expressed.
“I know that changes they made to this proposal have been made by the developer based on direct input of this community,” he said. “I’m frustrated that the response in working with the community and to be responsive to the community has been met with some degree of confusion. That being the case that’s the reason to table it at this time.”
Councilor Andy Feury said prior to the latest change he would have voted against the plan, but the updates merit further look from Council and the neighbors.
“There has been a certain amount of confusion that has been used by both sides and that’s not good for anybody,” he said. “The whole community is not only Park Knoll and Great Northern Heights — for the most part the people I heard speaking in opposition to it were from those two neighborhoods. I can’t take that as opposition from the whole community, I can only take that as concerned neighbors.”
This is the third time the subarea plan has been modified since it was first submitted to the city for consideration. The first version of the plan also looked to designate the 25 acres of wetland on the far west as public open space, but developers are no longer asking for land use changes to that area for a total of 35 acres remaining as currently designated by the growth policy. It also included multi-family housing.
Eric Mulcahy, with Sands Surveying representing the applicants, said objections that arose during the June 21 Planning Board meeting prompted the latest redesign.
“We decided to address those concerns by having the urban designation,” he said. “We’d still like to do some multi-family housing, but that would require a planned unit development overlay process where we would work with the city and the neighborhood on it.”
The subarea plan seeks to change the land use designations on 35 of the total 70 acres in the plan, and if approved would amend the city’s growth policy.
A proposed future extension of Baker Avenue remains part of the plan to run from the north edge of the plan boundary to the south edge. The plan also continues to include about 12 acres to be set as commercial for the area fronting the highway.
Jeff Swenson, one of the several developers involved in the project, said the subarea plan’s commitment to providing 10 percent affordable housing as part any future residential development remains central.
“We’re in a crisis here in Whitefish,” he said. “There is no housing and the rents are ridiculous.”
More than an hour worth of public comment before Council on the plan drew a split from those who think the project would have adverse impacts to the adjoining neighborhoods and from those saying the plan would provide critical affordable workforce housing for Whitefish. Some also were dismayed at another shift in the proposal.
Mark Voelker said it’s hard to keep up with the changes to the plan.
“This is highly confusing, it has changed in between meetings so many times,” he said. “It’s hard to know what’s going on.”
Roger Sherman said the plan should be delayed until a corridor plan for Highway 93 can be completed while noting traffic issues in the area. The city recently formed a committee to create such a plan.
“Developments already approved will increase traffic,” he said. “Yet we’re looking to approve more housing. We need to stop the crazy developments and alleviate traffic problems.”
A handful of folks who identified themselves as young professionals also said the eventual development could lead to necessary workforce housing.
Lyndsey Marshall said she grew up in Whitefish and lives in Kalipsell now, but would love to return here.
“This is an amazing place,” she said. “I work really hard and what’s on the market, there’s not a lot there. Breaking back into this city has proven difficult.”
Attorneys for both the developers and a group of residents opposed to the plan who are part of the South Whitefish Neighborhood Association have commented on the plan during public hearings and submitted multiple letters to the city regarding the plan.
Attorney Michelle Tafoya, who represents the neighborhood association, in a June 27 letter listed numerous reasons why the city should deny the subarea plan, claiming that such plans are not allowed under state law, that the developer’s application is insufficient, claiming that the public hasn’t been afforded a reasonable opportunity to participate in the process and that the plan doesn’t meet the criteria of providing a community benefit.
“The growth policy’s purpose is to ‘set forth a broad public policy that is founded in a community vision,’” she wrote in a letter to Council. “The vast majority of the neighboring landowners, including our client, and the surrounding community vehemently oppose this application. To approve such an application would erode the ‘community vision’ the growth policy was established to promote.”
Attorney Bill VanCanagan, who represents the developers, in a June 29 letter disagreed with claims made by the neighborhood association. He said subarea plans are valid, the application is not deficient, the association has been given ample opportunity to participate, that plan does meet a community benefit test and complies with the city’s growth policy.
“The record before Council clearly demonstrates that the revised plan provides a substantial community benefit by ... providing affordable workforce housing which the city desperately needs; including a transportation element that will benefit not only this particular subarea, but the city as a whole; and, omitting any proposed development on the wetland within the subarea,” he wrote in a letter to Council.
The plan calls for suggested zoning as WR-1 one-family residential for the western most portion of the proposed urban designation at 10.9 acres. The center section at 10.6 acres proposed urban is suggested to be zone WR-1 one-family residential and WR-2 two-family residential. The commercial areas on the highway, which are on either side of the First Baptist Church, are suggested as WB-2 secondary business zoning.
A subarea plan is similar to a neighborhood plan except that it is applied to vacant land and if approved, would be an amendment to the city’s growth policy.
If approved by City Council, the subarea plan could allow the applicant to then apply for zone changes followed by development applications for the property.
None of those applications have been submitted to the city at this time.