Shortly before 11:30 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, the Whitefish City Council voted 5-1 to sue Flathead County.
With the decision, councilors authorized Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps to file a lawsuit seeking a resolution to a planning jurisdictional discrepancy that arose last week when Flathead County commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind a 2005 inter-local agreement. That agreement distributed final land-use power from the county to the city of Whitefish in an extraterritorial zone – the “planning doughnut” – outside of city limits. Phelps and councilors alike expressed concern that because of the county’s decision many people in the doughnut would now not know who to go to for land-use applications and approval.
Mayor Mike Jenson said he wants commissioners to know that “this is not necessarily a hostile lawsuit, that we’re looking for a resolution.”
Recently, Commissioner Gary Hall has spearheaded an effort to return jurisdictional authority back to the county, which led to the commissioners’ decision last week. Phelps argues that, as part of the agreement, it’s impossible for one side to nullify the arrangement. Without the council’s vote, he said, the agreement still stands.
Nevertheless, Phelps fears that the county’s decision will confuse enough people, or give enough people the green light to ignore the city’s authority, that residents will begin processing land-use applications improperly. Phelps thinks the city will be able to get a response back from a court in three to four weeks.
Councilor John Muhlfeld said “it’s unfortunate it came to this,” but reiterated Phelps’ point that quick action is necessary before more trouble arises.
“I just think we need to take a proactive stance here,” Muhlfeld said, “and a strong one.”
Also, the council divided a long-awaited downtown improvements project into two separate votes: one on a $5.6 million parking garage and one on a $5.2 million street project. The council voted to table discussion on the parking garage and voted to approve the conceptual design plans for the street project, but with the amendment that mid-block crosswalks not be part of the plan and that funding concerns are addressed.
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