Stand Strong, Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

I’ve recently written three stories for NewWest.net on what makes and keeps Whitefish special. You might think that’s a lot of coverage for one little town in northwestern Montana, and you’re probably right. Many cities are trying to do the same things, so perhaps Whitefish isn’t all that special when it comes to city governance and policy, but it does give us a good example of what cities everywhere in the New West can do to preserve the special nature of their communities.

But can city leaders and their supporters continue to stand strong against mounting pressure to make Whitefish like every other town?

Well, time will tell, but at least the November 2 city election gave us some encouraging signs. John Muhlfield and Ryan Friel, the only two candidates in the seven-person field who could be described as progressive and most likely to stand strong for current policy were the top vote getters for three open seats on the city council.

In Whitefish, like elsewhere, attempts to preserve the special character of the town have been met with opposition from real estate developers and some landowners who want “sensible land use policy.” As near as I can tell, that means minimal if any restrictions on development and no emphasis on preventing Whitefish from being homogenized.

In most towns, it may be too late to change course. Once you have thirty casinos pumping tax dollars into city coffers, every big box you can name, a four-lane running through town, and 20,000 lots platted and grandfathered out of any future zoning or planning, it’s probably too late to hold off homogenization. In Whitefish and a few other cities, though, we still have a chance to avoid mistakes most communities have made.

That brings me to the main point of this column, and why the Whitefish story is a lot bigger than Whitefish. It seems to me that cities should move fast and strong to make communities more attractive and affordable to prevent the current insane proliferation of sprawl into the so-called “urban interface.” Local government and community leaders should push for amenities like open space and parks, playgrounds, public art, and bikeways; protection for the current character and security of neighborhoods; more pedestrian-, bicycle- and pet-friendly communities; and development of genuine downtowns flush with a blend of non-chain retailers and restaurants, spiced with residential units and basic services like public restrooms, grocery stores and pharmacies–and not filled with concrete and casinos.

When you fly over France or Germany or Spain, you see lots of little towns, but no sprawl between them. European communities, unlike most of ours, have been planned so people don’t have to drive. Imagine that, walking or riding a bicycle to the grocery store with your own bags. In most of the world, that’s considered normal, not “third world” or “alternative,” which is how we often view it here in the New West.

One thing that is still alive and well in the New West, and not in Europe, is our hunting heritage, but sprawl threatens that tradition, too. As private land near cities formerly open to hunting fills up with “ranchettes,” it becomes unavailable to hunters for obvious safety reasons. We have more deer and elk than ever, but fewer places to hunt them.

The same is true, in general, for other outdoor activities. More sprawl means fewer recreational opportunities within easy reach of the city limits.

One part of the sprawl-or-infill debate that I don’t get is the attitude of most real estate developers. They fight most zoning or planning or new policies such as lot size, density standards, setbacks, slope restrictions or critical area protection that limits development. But when you look at Whitefish, you’d think developers would welcome such ordinances and policies because they make the town a more desirable place to live or do business. To me, that translates into more revenue for real estate developers. Instead fighting efforts to keep Whitefish special, you’d think they’d be fighting to make more places like Whitefish.

For many people, attractive means affordable. High property taxes common in many cities, for example, promote sprawl.

Whitefish has made strides in this direction with property tax relief coming from the resort tax and an affordable housing policy, but there is a lot more ground to plow here because housing is too expensive. To achieve “affordability,” Whitefish and many other cities will have to require–or at least allow–higher density development. Affordable and dense will be the same thing going forward, which will require a tectonic cultural shift for many people.

We all still see people building houses twenty miles from the city limits to save money. I’m sure the land is less expensive, but even at today’s prices, those people are staring at roughly $2,500 more per year for gas, not counting other vehicle expenses, just to get to town and back every day. When (not if) gas goes north of $5 per gallon, make that $5,000 per year, every year. Is that “affordable”?

So, perhaps, we need a new battle cry. Instead of relying the ineffective, worn-out calls to “stop sprawl,” let’s start championing efforts to make cities more attractive and affordable, which seems like the best way to prevent sprawl.

Footnote: Here are links to the three recent articles:
What Makes Whitefish Special?

What Keeps Whitefish Special?

And a Trail Runs Through It