Board splits on Skyles apartment project

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A proposal for a 54-unit development on Skyles Place will head to City Council without a recommendation from the planning board.

The Planning Board last week made motions to recommend both denial and approval of the project, but both motions failed by votes of 4-2, thus resulting in no recommendation by the board.

The developer of the property at 519 Skyles Place is seeking a conditional use permit for the two-building apartment project. The property is currently developed with an auto repair business, commercial storage business and three residential homes.

Concerns from both the board and the public centered on traffic issues along Skyles Place and Wisconsin Avenue, the height and density of the buildings and whether the project fits the neighborhood.

Board member Toby Scott pointed to the number of parking spots on the development, the snow removal plan and the building height as his reasons for denial.

Fellow board member John Middleton noted those issues, but said it technically does meet the requirements for a project in that area.

“They’re meeting virtually every requirement that the zoning designates other than being in two buildings versus one,” Middleton said. “For me, I understand the concerns of the neighborhood — traffic, snow removal, left turns, traffic studies. That all resonates with me, but I also think that what’s been presented here is better than what the applicant is allowed to do by right. Two buildings and lower density versus a single, massive building — they could come back next month not before planning board and do something that’s significantly worse than this.”

The developer is proposing 24 units in the north building to include 12 studio and 12 one-bedroom units. The south building is proposed to include 30 units made up of six studio, 12 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom.

Access to the site is off Skyles Place at the northwest corner of the lot and parking located at the center of the project. Open space areas would be located around the perimeter of the property.

The area is zoned WR-4, or high density multi-family residential, which is intended for higher-density residential purposes and limited non-residential uses.

The project requires a conditional use permit because it is split into two buildings. Had the applicant chosen one large building or re-planned the site for one building on each lot, a conditional use permit would not be required.

Concerns about traffic related to the development included a number of cars going in and out at an already busy area as well as frustration with the Montana Department of Transportation. Wisconsin Avenue is a state highway, so the city does not have the means to make traffic or infrastructure decisions on the road, as board member and City Councilor Richard Hildner noted.

“I am really concerned about the lack of state highway infrastructure in place, or that as Whitefish continues to grow, we are approving projects in the hopes that the infrastructure will follow, and the problem on Wisconsin has become exacerbated,” he said.

With regard to increasing the traffic load in the area, both the public and the board took issue with a traffic study done as part of the application, which showed the project would generate a total of 395 new weekday trips when completed.

The study indicates that the project would not create any new roadway capacity problems, but does recommend the developer work with the city to develop a plan to implement a left-hand turn lane on Wisconsin Avenue northbound onto Skyles Place.

Pam Sbar lives on Dakota Avenue and says she’s constantly feeling like she’s in danger when driving on and around Wisconsin Avenue, primarily because of the sheer volume of vehicles and the way some drivers will pass on the right shoulder when someone in front is making a left turn. That needs to be dealt with before more developments come in, she said.

“From my perspective, I urge this planning board to put a pause on further developments, maybe this is one of them, and say, ‘Let’s get this rectified before we allow this to continue loading up Wisconsin Avenue,’” Sbar said.

Board chair Steve Qunell voted against both motions for the project. In speaking to the board, he noted their “hands are tied” with regard to fixing traffic issues on Wisconsin Avenue, and that the board needs to make decisions based on what they can control.

“This is a great case study in what we do as a planning board,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about Wisconsin Avenue. If we denied projects because of traffic, we wouldn’t get any growth in town, and we cut off growth that limits any possible affordable housing. We have to judge things based on the criteria that are set forth in our planning and zoning regulations, and unless we get something from the MDT that says, ‘No, that’s going to generate too much traffic,’ we have to accept that.”

City Council will hold a public hearing on the project at its Aug. 5 meeting.

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