Growth Policy Hearing Full of Drama

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – A woman cried. A state senator spoke. People clapped and whooped. One man held up a picture of his six-month-old boy to remind the city council what was at stake and another proclaimed his pride as an American while taking a shot at Whitefish’s democratic system.

Whitefish City Council’s public hearing on its growth policy was not without its share of emotion and drama Monday night. The gathering was the final step of a two-year process of drafting the policy. Now the council will examine the current draft, factoring in comments spoken at public hearings and written in letters, and then decide whether to adopt the document that would provide a framework for monitoring land use in and around Whitefish for the next 20 years.

The council will hold a workshop on Oct. 22 at 5:30 p.m. in city council chambers. The public is invited.

Bob Horne, Whitefish’s former city planner and a hired consultant to help draft the growth policy, gave a PowerPoint presentation of the policy’s basic elements and the planning board’s revisions. The planning board passed on the draft to the council with a recommendation to approve it. Also, David Taylor, Whitefish’s current city planner, outlined his department’s own recommendations and suggested revisions.

The policy is broken down into seven general elements: natural resources, economic development, land use, community facilities, housing, transportation and implementation/intergovernmental.

Of the standing room only crowd at council chambers, the number of supporters seemed fairly equal to the number of detractors, though the detractors were the more vocal public speakers. Opponents mostly spoke about the two-mile “planning doughnut,” an area surrounding Whitefish that the city has jurisdiction over, though residents there can’t vote for city officials.

“I honestly believe this is America,” said Tom Thomas, who lives in the planning doughnut, “and I believe we have the vote.”

People clapped loudly after Thomas stepped down and then Sen. Jerry O’Neil of Columbia Falls got up and said, “I agree with Tom.”

Jack Silliker then stepped up to the podium and addressed the council, turning around once to address Horne who was sitting in the audience. He said that as an out-of-town resident not interested in everyday city functions, he doesn’t think the city council represents him.

“If you take a vote out there (where I live),” he said, “you’re going down.”

“Leave us alone,” he added.

But the supporters stood up too. Among them was Mayre Flowers of the Citizens for a Better Flathead, a group that gave many suggestions to the planning board for revisions. Flowers spoke at length of the importance of monitoring Whitefish’s rapid growth, while Horne emphasized that the policy is not a law itself but instead a framework for adopting future laws on land use.

“How small do you want Whitefish to stay and how big do you want it to grow?” Horne asked.