City moves ahead with Highway 93 South cooridor plan

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U.S. Highway 93 South in Whitefish.

The city of Whitefish is finally moving forward on a long discussed corridor plan for Highway 93 South.

In December City Council requested city planning staff create a scope of work and a timeline for initiating a corridor plan for the area. Last week Council gave its OK to a proposal that sets the kick-off this spring for work on the corridor plan.

The city's 2007 growth policy identified the area as in need of a corridor plan, but plans for Highway 93 West and Wisconsin Avenue were considered greater priorities by the City Council, mostly due to issues with the doughnut dispute.

A Montana Supreme Court ruling in 2014 ceded planning control of the doughnut from the city to the Flathead County following a long-running legal battle over its control.

Mayor John Muhlfeld addressed appearances that the city is rushing into the corridor plan.

“This is not on a fast track,” he said. “We've been talking about this for 10 years. The reason we are talking about this right now is the plan that is for outside our jurisdiction [that has been submitted to the county].”

A private corridor plan for Highway 93 south of Montana 40 has been submitted to the county. The County Planning Board on Jan. 11 delayed a decision on the citizen-initiated plan that seeks to change the zoning to allow for more commercial development along the highway. The board set a March 8 work session to continue looking at the corridor proposal.

The city study looks to divide the area into three major individual sections that would need extensive individual review, according to Planning Director Dave Taylor.

Two areas are inside city limits — the “neighborhood commercial” stretch from East Sixth Street to the Whitefish River culvert and the “highway commercial” strip from the river to the intersection with Montana 40. The third area outside city limits is the “agricultural/light commercial” stretch from Montana 40 south past Blanchard Lake Road.

“The issues facing Highway 93 South are much more complex than Highway 93 West or Wisconsin Avenue, so there is likely to be more time, expense and controversy involved,” Taylor said. “Each of those areas is an important sub area that has unique considerations.”

Apart from future land use considerations, the corridor plan will also need a major transportation planning element as intense development pressure in the area has highlighted needs for stop lights and frontage roads, Taylor noted, as well as the extension of Baker Avenue and connections to Karrow Avenue and JP Road.

Council did not set the definite boundaries for the corridor study.

City Manager Chuck Stearns cautioned Council about including areas that are outside city limits.

“You will have to determine if you want to go south of 40,” he said. “If the county doesn't participate with the plan, it doesn't seem to make sense to go outside the city.”

Muhlfeld said he would like to see the city work with the county on creating a corridor plan for Highway 93 South.

“I would like to see us get together with the county to partner on this,” he said. “I think it's worthwhile to make the additional effort to reach out to the county.”

He said he plans to meet with County Commissioners to make a formal offer to work together.

The city-initiated plan is estimated to cost between $80,000 and $100,000, Taylor noted, and there are “budget concerns with that.” He said only the Wisconsin Avenue corridor plan was budgeted for fiscal year 2017, but funds could be taken from the tax increment finance funds to get the study moving forward.

Council gave its approval to use TIF funds of $30,000 that had been set aside for a never-developed buy local campaign. The funding will allow the planning department to advertise a request for proposals and select a firm to create the plan.

Taylor estimates that the kick off for the plan would occur sometime in March or April. He said the completed plan would likely to take up to 18 months to develop once it commences.

During public comment, Citizens For a Better Flathead director Mayre Flowers said it's critical Whitefish continues to plan for areas outside of city limits. She urged City Council to continue following the county's process with the citizen-created corridor plan and give its input.

“It's important the Council understands what the county is talking about on their project,” she said.

The proposal before the county would change the zoning from largely agricultural and suburban agricultural to commercial and business service zoning. The plan area includes 490 acres along the highway 1.5 miles south of city limits.

Proponents of the plan say it would allow for more flexibility in developing their properties in the future, while some say it would open up the area to strip development.

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