WHITEFISH – It appears the next stop for the doughnut rollercoaster is the Montana Supreme Court.
At the end of a lengthy council meeting Monday night, the Whitefish City Council voted 4-1 to appeal a recent district court ruling that essentially handed jurisdictional authority of the “planning doughnut” to Flathead County, removing it from the hands of Whitefish. The council came to its decision within 20 minutes.
Councilor Turner Askew cast the lone dissenting vote.
Following a recommendation to appeal by City Attorney John Phelps, Councilor Nancy Woodruff asked what the city’s chances would be in the appeal. Phelps stressed his confidence by reminding councilors that the agreement had stood for more than two years, with the approval of both county commissioners and the county attorney. He said he believes the ruling by Judge Katherine Curtis was simply wrong.
“I think she’s just mistaken,” Phelps said.
Phelps added that the city can ask Curtis to temporarily suspend her decision while the Supreme Court’s decision is pending, a potentially long waiting period. Until then, it appears the fate of the doughnut is in limbo.
The council was barely able to get to the doughnut legal issue on its agenda following a long discussion over an increasingly contentious parking garage, which was once again tabled. Though many voices were heard in support of the garage during the public comment period, the parking issue took a detour when Councilor Nick Palmer and City Manager Gary Marks described two alternative options.
The first option, to look into 44 parking spaces in a nearby church lot, was presented and quickly discouraged by Marks, who said it wasn’t an economically sound decision for so few spaces. The proposed three-level garage would contain more than 200 spaces. The second option, however, was favored by both Palmer and Marks.
It includes a land swap deal with Whitefish School District 44, the re-designation of 43 Central Avenue parking spaces to full-day spots and the creation of a surface lot on Spokane Avenue and Second Street where the garage is now being proposed. An estimated 370 parking spots would be created with this arrangement, Marks and Palmer said.
The cost estimate for the alternative proposal is $850,000, Marks and Palmer said, as opposed to the garage’s cost – with bond interest factored in – of $9.2 million. George Crandall, a consultant who has been working on the design of the parking garage, said Palmer and Marks were “cooking the numbers.” Mayor Mike Jenson intervened by saying “that’s not true” and describing the importance of factoring in the bond interest.
Another twist in the alternative parking proposal was that a clearly frustrated Marks said he believed School District 44 Superintendent Jerry House was on board with the plan, which would alter Whitefish Middle School’s parking situation, for weeks until House sent a letter to the city at 3:45 p.m. Monday afternoon, several hours before the council meeting.
House took the podium and said it was true that he originally thought the plan was fine until he spoke with school staff members and discussed the effects – most notably safety – on the students a bit more. Though both he and Marks said the school district and city have been “good neighbors,” Jenson, recognizing tension, reminded that the two parties should remain good neighbors.
“Let’s not let one issue destroy our relationship,” Jenson said.
The council will resume discussion on the parking garage and its alternatives at a later city meeting.
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