County Begins Planning Doughnut Takeover

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County commissioners sent a letter to the Whitefish City Council Wednesday, notifying the city of its intent to move forward with plans to take over jurisdiction of the “planning doughnut.”

The letter said the county would be willing to consider a settlement, but put the onus on the city for any proposals.

“There’s nothing on our (the county’s) mind as far as settlement,” Commissioner Gary Hall said. “They instigated the situation in the courts and we’re in the stronger position after the two district court decisions and are going to win in the upper courts as well. We’ll, of course, listen to settlement ideas, but that’s their move.”

Hall did say he thought an agreeable settlement for the county would give the county final say on land use decisions in the doughnut, an area comprising roughly two miles surrounding Whitefish.

The ongoing legal battle stems from a controversy over a 2005 interlocal agreement that transferred final land-use and zoning power in the doughnut from the county to the city. Because of concern over new Whitefish regulations and vocal opposition to the city’s authority from residents who live in the area, county commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind the decision in March.

The city of Whitefish requested a preliminary injunction to uphold the agreement, but in May, a district court ruling essentially handed jurisdictional authority of the area to the county. The city plans to appeal to the state’s Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the county is moving forward with the process of transferring authority. “It’ll be a workload for sure,” Hall said of the changes, which will include updating the county growth policy, rezoning certain areas and figuring out where Big Mountain falls.

The county’s letter proposed an advisory committee made up of county and Whitefish city officials and area residents to assist the county planning and zoning staff with the adjustments.

“It is important to us to have your input on all issues including floodplain, lakeshore and especially zoning,” the letter, signed by all three county commissioners, read. “Some changes and perhaps most will be in keeping zoning in place, others will not be so easy and we want input from representatives from your community.

The county’s suggested members for the eight-person committee include: Peggy Amelon, of the Whitefish Planning Board; Ryan Friel, a member of the Whitefish City Council; Greg Lane of Big Mountain; B.J. Grieve, the county’s assistant planning director; a county planning board member; Commissioner Hall; a Whitefish community member submitted by the city for approval by the county and one alternate from the Whitefish area. The county’s suggestions for the community posts were Marshall Freidman and Casey Malmquist, respectively.

Hall said he’d taken suggestions from people in the Whitefish area when considering possible board members. “These are people I know are level headed and don’t really have an agenda,” he said. “Marshall and Casey, for example, are opposites of me politically but I think are reasonable and have the best interests of Whitefish in mind.”

The county will hold its first public meeting to discuss the transition of the doughnut area to the county at its July 16 County Planning Board meeting.

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