Commissioner Says Whitefish Abusing Zoning Power

By Beacon Staff

Four years ago Flathead County Commissioner Gary Hall voted to give the city of Whitefish control over land use and zoning regulations in areas outside its city limits.

Today Hall wants to rescind that decision.

Since the 2003 vote to expand Whitefish City Council’s regulatory powers, the relationship between Hall and the council has soured. Hall contends that the council’s planning methods are “regulatory beyond reasonability” and have left swaths of county land worthless. The council counters that it’s protecting its city from overdevelopment.

In 2003 the Flathead County Commission in conjunction with the city councils of Whitefish and Columbia Falls voted to give those two cities control over planning in the areas within a two-mile radius of those cities. Hall now considers the decision a mistake.

“It was supposed to be a mutual working relationship with the county and city,” Hall said. “(City officials) were supposed to call us up when they were making decisions. They didn’t do that. I did not realize that it would turn into, in my opinion, the monster it is.”

“My desire is to take (control) back to county zoning,” he added.

Hall calls Whitefish’s approach to planning a “no growth” agenda that has severe effects on his constituents within the two-mile radius, often rendering their property worthless. Most specifically, Hall doesn’t like the “rural residential” designation of land along U.S. Highways 93 and 40. The problem, Hall contends, is that people don’t want to build houses on the highway anymore, something he says he’s been told by numerous residents living in that jurisdiction.

“Nobody is going to build on that highway,” he said. “It’s too busy. Then when they try to sell their property, they can’t sell it as commercial and nobody wants it for residential, so they have (valueless) land.”

Hall had a guest column in the Sept. 12 Daily Inter Lake illustrating his stance. In response, Whitefish council member and mayoral candidate Nick Palmer wrote a guest piece for the Sept. 20 Whitefish Pilot that explained his desire to protect Whitefish’s gateways from strip development.

In an interview, Palmer stressed that he has respect for Hall but said the commissioner wants to allow developers “to do whatever they want.” Palmer said he doesn’t want to see industrial or commercial businesses along the highway.

“Hall’s asking us to approve a zone change for anybody who wants one,” Palmer said. “Our job as city government is to protect the assets that everybody holds in common: the air, the water, the traffic safety, the things that individuals can’t handle for themselves.”

Palmer said he believes the city’s recently approved growth policy and its critical areas ordinance, which is being reviewed by the planning board, will prevent Whitefish from looking like Southern California, where he’s from. Hall says both documents are flawed and considers it dangerous to rush them into use.

Hall said Columbia Falls “took the language from (the county’s) growth policy and inserted it into theirs, which is what Whitefish should have done” to create more fluency between the city and county. Hall was mayor in Columbia Falls until 2001.

“It’s burdensome beyond belief,” he said of Whitefish’s growth policy. “I’m sick about it.”

Rescinding the 2003 decision, however, is next to impossible, Hall said, because both the county commission and city council would have to approve the move. After Palmer’s guest column, Hall isn’t sure the relationship between him and the city council can be salvaged.

“I was offended by his letter and I was hopeful that we could have a working relationship,” Hall said. “I was very disappointed that Nick took that position. His lack of respect for the commission is offensive.”

Hall said he prides himself on usually being able to work through these situations.

“I have a reputation of being able to bring people together,” he said.

Council member Nancy Woodruff said the two-mile “planning doughnut” is inherently a dilemma because of representation issues.

“He’s fighting for his constituents,” she said of Hall. “I don’t have any problem with what he’s saying. But I do definitely have a different viewpoint, definitely on the highway corridor.”

She said Hall, who has addressed the council at various meetings, has called the council uncooperative. She thinks this claim fails to take into account the situation’s complexities.

“Our constituency is very different than the county’s as a whole,” she said. “The majority of people in Whitefish believe in the need for land use planning. What Gary sees as being uncooperative, I hope he can see it as us representing our constituents.”

Woodruff, like Palmer, thinks commercial strip development would be an eyesore if allowed at the gateway of Whitefish. She thinks it’s necessary for the city to maintain control of the jurisdiction.

“As cities grow, eventually the areas that border the city will become part of the city,” she said. “If you’re going to do any effective long-term planning, I don’t think it can stop at the city line.”

The issue of representation is important, Woodruff said. She pointed out there are county representatives on the planning board. She acknowledged, however, that residents living in the two-mile radius can’t vote for city council members because they are outside city limits. They can participate at meetings.

“It’s not a totally fair system,” she said. “It’s also not fair that people in the city pay for all city functions, but people on the outskirts come in to town and use all the city services but they’re not paying taxes.

“It’s as good of a system as I know how to make it, but I would love to hear some ideas about how to improve their representation.”