County Moves Quickly to Take Back Doughnut

By Beacon Staff

Whitefish’s controversial “planning doughnut” could be back under Flathead County control sooner than anticipated.

Flathead County commissioners have accelerated their plans for taking over jurisdiction of the two-mile planning and zoning area surrounding the city, aiming to shift all land with city zoning inside the doughnut to county zoning before the end of this year. Previous estimates – as late as the end of last month – had put that work at about a year, and divided the transition efforts between the county and the city.

“It’s admittedly pretty aggressive,” Jeff Harris, county planning and zoning director, said last week at a city-county doughnut transition team meeting.

According to a draft version of the eight-step plan, the county planning board could hold a public hearing on the zoning changes on Oct. 15. A hearing before the county commissioners is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 6, with a final vote slated as soon as Dec. 15. During that time, the county would also need to amend its growth policy and create a new 2.5-acre zoning designation.

The county set the transition strategy in motion Sept. 15 with a public comment hearing on growth policy amendments that would move administrative responsibilities for the doughnut from the city to the county. Of the dozen residents who spoke, all favored – in varying degrees – keeping some element of joint planning and adopting at least portions of Whitefish’s 2007 growth policy. Written public comment was also unanimously in favor of joint planning between the city and county.

“With Whitefish the fastest growing city in Montana since the start of the decade, we can ill afford any hasty retreat to the ‘good ol’ days’ way of planning,” doughnut residents Laurence and Barbara Magone wrote.

Commissioner Joe Brenneman, who opposed the county’s original decision to rescind the interlocal agreement with Whitefish, questioned the county’s transition plan and asked Commissioner Gary Hall if unknown parties were influencing the process.

“I wonder, in the interest of full disclosure, if there are issues being raised by people who are not here?” Brenneman said.

Hall assured him there were not, and Brenneman pressed the issue asking, “And none of these people have special development projects they’d like to see go through?” Hall again said he didn’t know of any.

City officials have also balked at the hastened transition, expressing concern over what type of development would be allowed in the doughnut area.

“This is a huge change from what we were doing two weeks ago,” Whitefish Mayor Mike Jensen said. “At the beginning we had talked about a gradual process and maybe working toward a new agreement. That seems to be off the table now.”

When the city took over planning and zoning for the doughnut in 2005, it implemented city zoning on all unzoned land within the two-mile area, creating a checkerboard combination of city and county zoning. A new subcommittee of the county planning board began meeting in late August to determine the county equivalent for doughnut land with city zoning.

City staff and planning board members, though, have not been directly involved in that process. And in many cases, city and county zoning designations don’t match up, City Planning Director Dave Taylor said.

For example, Whitefish has 1-, 2.5- and 15-acre agricultural zoning designations, while the county has similar suburban agriculture zoning but with 5-, 10- and 20-acre designations. County SAG-5 allows mini storages where they are not allowed under Whitefish zoning.

There are several other regulations that Whitefish currently administers in the doughnut area that are either less stringent or nonexistent in the county. Those include a dark skies ordinance, landscape requirements, architectural review, sign ordinances, decay and noxious weed control, lakeshore protection, floodplain administration, off-street parking regulations and the city’s controversial critical areas ordinance.

“I’d like to see if there’s a way to police some of those things that are important to Whitefish and that the planning board and staff and community have worked hard over the past several years to put in place,” Taylor said.

County officials said they would consider a new interlocal agreement that could allow for some of those regulations to remain in the doughnut area.

With the county’s accelerated timeline for shifting control, both city and county officials expressed doubt over whether such an agreement could also be drawn up and put in place by the end of the year. Doughnut representative Diane Smith suggested the new interlocal agreement outline broad goals, and that specific regulation be worked out by joint boards over the next year.

The idea was well received by city officials, who seemed eager to gain some say in the progress of the doughnut transition. In their mind, much is at stake if some city ordinances lapse in the shift to county control.

“They may seem like little things,” Ian ¬¬¬Collins, a city representative on the transition team, said. “But this is the front door to our city. We don’t want giant billboards or storage units all along our entrance.”