It’s been an active question for residents living just south of Whitefish city limits for at least a decade: What is going to happen, planning-wise, to the U.S. Highway 93 corridor leading into the south end of the city?
For years the battle was over what is commonly referred to as the doughnut, or the two-mile belt extending from city limits. Flathead County and the city battled over planning privileges there, and the Montana Supreme Court sided with the county in the summer of 2014.
Now, the Flathead County Planning Board intends to take up on May 10 a citizen-initiated proposed text amendment and zone changes for land extending about 1.5 miles south of Whitefish on Highway 93, which would create an area called the “South Whitefish Overlay.”
Most of the changes would shift agricultural and residential zones to business designations: About 37 acres of SAG-5 (suburban agriculture) would become B2-A (secondary business); about 79 acres of SAG-5 would become BSD (business service district); and about 145 acres of AG-20 (agricultural) would become SAG-5.
The proposal also seeks to place about 490 acres in the overlay designation, which would have standards for landscaping, buffering, signage, lighting, building design, and parking, similar to the standards used by the City of Whitefish. The overlay would include 1.5 miles south of the city limits, and a quarter mile east and west of the highway’s right-of-way.
According to Flathead County Planning and Zoning Director Mark Mussman, the citizen-initiated proposals essentially change residential and agricultural zones to fit the existing business corridor.
Already, multiple businesses pepper the side of the highway leading into town, including but not limited to a coffee shop and offices, a veterinarian clinic, a fly-fishing shop, mini storage, a bed and breakfast, an auto-body shop, and a plastic surgery clinic.
“A lot of them have received conditional-use permits to operate those businesses,” Mussman said.
The initial proposals for the zone change came about in January, when the planning board held a public hearing on the matter. After public comment at the Jan. 11 hearing, the board decided to workshop the proposals and get additional public comment. The board also asked for an amended plan, which it discussed at a March 8 workshop, and received a staff report on the amended plan to reflect the changes between the documents for the May 10 meeting.
The main changes were reductions in the non-residential zoning, Mussman said, but it also addresses traffic safety concerns a bit more. With the changes in place, Mussman said he expected the proposals to move on to the Flathead County Commission.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the planning board makes some kind of recommendation (at its May 10 meeting),” Mussman said.
The City of Whitefish supports creating a South Whitefish Overlay, according to a letter from Whitefish Planning Director David Taylor, but the city continues to oppose zone changes for what it called “the proliferation of commercial zoning south of Highway 40.”
“We are also concerned that the plan still doesn’t adequately address traffic impacts, commercial strip development, and consistency with Whitefish’s Growth Policy and zoning,” the April 28 letter stated.
The Business Service District (BSD) is a sticking point for the city, because it “creates significant traffic issues,” and it has a one-acre minimum requirement. This leads the city to worry that future subdivisions could “conservatively create an additional 40 new lots in an area where very few lots can be subdivided now with the existing five-acre minimum.”
The city also noted that the addition of more B-2A zones shouldn’t be considered unless water or sewer services are available, and currently the city has no plans to extend them south of Highway 40. The city suggested eliminating the new B-2A zone all together, and that if the BSD must exist, that it only be applied to the existing non-conforming businesses nearest to Blanchard Lake Road, “otherwise it has a strip development impact.”
Mussman said he hoped the planning board would take note of the issues the city has raised and bring them into the discussion. For example, the overlay is supposed to mitigate concerns of strip development.
“Hopefully the planning board and ultimately the county commissioners will have some good discussion about some of the issues that the City of Whitefish would latch onto if this was ultimately approved and was challenged,” he said. “I think that hopefully they’ll be prepared to have those discussions and explain why zoning property this way won’t make strip development.”
The May 10 Flathead County Planning Board hearing will take place one the second floor of the Earl Bennett Building at 1035 First Ave. W in Kalispell, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.