Shortly before midnight Tuesday night, after about four hours of deliberation and public comment, the Whitefish City Council voted 5-1 to adopt a long-anticipated and often contentious critical areas ordinance.
After hearing 29 speakers, almost evenly divided between supporters and opponents of the ordinance, the council made three amendments and posed an array of questions to consultants and city staff members before arriving at a decision. Turner Askew, in his first meeting as city councilor, cast the lone dissenting vote.
Both the supporting councilors and ordinance proponents from the public acknowledged the current draft could use some tweaking, but they maintained that after more than two years the law is ready to be implemented. It can be adjusted as necessary, they said.
“If we don’t do something now,” Councilor Nick Palmer said, “we’ll lose something we can’t retrieve.”
Palmer’s statement referred to water quality, the overriding issue of the ordinance. At its core, the 34-page document strives to manage storm water drainage in critical areas; protect the quality of area water bodies; protect both property and people from landslides and other avoidable natural occurrences; and manage groundwater. Supporters stressed an urgent need to deal with deteriorating water quality in the area.
To many who spoke, the intent of the ordinance is clear. But others said they feel the intent is disguised by the sheer complexity of the document, which includes detailed language about matrices and buffer zones, among other aspects. Some opponents said the document is too binding, while others, mostly coming from the “doughnut” area surrounding the city, argued that the law unfairly governs disenfranchised citizens.
Others raised concern about the possibility of litigation that the document could present to the city. Sean Frampton, an attorney who won a case against the city last year concerning a temporary critical areas ordinance, said he feels the current document leaves room for litigation. John Phelps, Whitefish’s city attorney, said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a lawsuit.
“I’m assuming there will be,” Phelps said.
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