Frustrated with the increasing number of lakeshore violations on Whitefish Lake and a lack of city enforcement, the chairman of the Whitefish Lake and Lakeshore Protection Committee met with county commissioners Tuesday morning, saying that if things with the city don’t improve he’d like the county to consider taking over prosecuting violators.
“If at the end of three months we’re not moving toward a solution with the city, I assure you I will be back in here – with the support of the majority of the committee – asking you to take the two-thirds of the lake that’s in the county back under county jurisdiction,” committee chairman Jim Stack said to the commissioners. “I’d like you to begin considering that possibility.”
In early June, Stack, a committee member for the past 16 years and chairman for the last 10, and committee member John Muhlfeld, a Whitefish City Council member, announced they were resigning from the group because of what Stack called “a broken system.” Muhlfeld’s resignation was effective May 29, but Stack said Tuesday that he plans to serve until new regulations are adopted, but no longer than the end of September.
Lakeshore violations are not only numerous, Stack said, but often flagrant and willful because, while regulations are in place, the city of Whitefish has failed to prosecute violators. “What many of these violators are getting – if anything – is a slap on the wrist,” he said. “For the cost of buying two replacement trees and planting them, one owner got himself a new viewshed.”
The number of lakeshore violations began to increase about three years ago, Stack said, when the city took over planning control for all of Whitefish Lake. Prior to that Flathead County had dealt with violations on two-thirds of the lake.
Stack suggested that an update of the lakeshore regulations be undertaken now, while an experienced committee is in place. Changes would include clarifying the current regulations, closing known loopholes that lead to violations and adopting a formal violation procedure. He also suggested that an additional 10-foot setback from the lakeshore protection zone be considered for all roof lines and elevated structures over four feet tall and that a sunset clause be set for all existing lawns in the lakeshore protection zone.
“I hope that landowners would recognize this as tough love for the lake,” Stack said. “We need to have lawns out of the lakeshore protection zone – phosphates are already one of the biggest problems for the lake.”
Commissioner Joe Brenneman questioned Stack’s assertion that the county had done a better job of enforcing lakeshore regulations than Whitefish, citing a letter from September of 2000 where Stack had criticized the county’s methods. “Are you hopeful that the county will just be a lot better than they were when you wrote this letter?” Brenneman asked.
Stack said, though, that his concerns with the county at that time were related to high planning staff turnover – not a willful lack of enforcement.
Brenneman also questioned whether the county planning department and attorney’s office would have the time and resources to again take responsibility for enforcing lakeshore regulations: “Make no mistake, I think these violations should be prosecuted,” he said, “but that takes money and time from the departments who would be in charge of that.”
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