Cooperative efforts between Whitefish and Flathead County officials over the future of the controversial “planning doughnut” have broken down again.
On Sept. 30, County Commissioner Gary Hall sent a letter to Whitefish Mayor Mike Jenson, ending transition team meetings between the two municipalities.
“It has become very apparent over the past several weeks that you and your team are not interested in working productively with the county on the transition of the doughnut lands,” Hall wrote.
In March, the county voted to rescind a 2005 inter-local agreement that transferred final land-use and zoning power in the doughnut from the county to the city. The city sued the county, in a case that appears to be heading toward the state supreme court.
The transition team was tasked with addressing mutual concerns and provide joint direction as the county continued its takeover of jurisdiction over the two-mile planning and zoning area surrounding the city. The group had been meeting since the end of August.
The county half of the team included Hall, county planning board member Mike Mower, “doughnut” resident Diane Smith and Greg Lane, representing Whitefish Mountain Resort. City representatives included Jenson, city councilors John Muhlfeld and Turner Askew and local resident Ian Collins. County planning director Jeff Harris and city planning director Dave Taylor assisted their respective sides.
In his letter, Hall said he had hoped to reach a new agreement between the two municipalities that recognized Whitefish’s interest in protecting its corridors and entryways into the city, including regulations regarding dark skies, landscaping and architectural review among others. City officials had listed the protection of its entrance corridors as one of their biggest concerns with the takeover.
Whitefish currently administers several regulations in the doughnut area that are either less stringent or nonexistent in the county, and that would be lost with the control shift. But to reach such an agreement, Hall said the city would have to drop its current lawsuit against the county over the doughnut.
“I would at minimum need to know the wish of the council toward termination of the lawsuit,” he wrote. “It has become clear however, that Whitefish prefers a ‘bet it all’ strategy, gambling on a lawsuit outcome that tips in its favor.”
City officials balked at the ultimatum.
“We weren’t willing to withdraw the lawsuit and that was the lynchpin for everything they wanted – to even have a discussion at the table,” Jenson said.
Last month, the county accelerated their plans for taking over jurisdiction of the doughnut, aiming to shift all land there with city zoning to county zoning before the end of this year. It’s an ambitious effort that will require several public hearings and commission votes between now and mid-December.
Muhlfeld said Whitefish officials had suggested delaying the jurisdiction transfer until July of next year in order to give the city the chance to address county concerns, including the controversial critical areas ordinance, zoning and representation. If a resolution hadn’t been met by then, he said, the county could have continued with the shift.
“Beginning with the first meeting, though, we were given the county’s timeline and schedule and the city of Whitefish wasn’t provided any opportunity to comment on that schedule,” he said.
There were also questions last week about the possible disbandment of the city-county planning board, a joint group that currently reviews subdivision and zoning requests for the doughnut area.
Last Monday, city officials said they received an e-mail from the county telling them the board was being dismantled immediately. A second e-mail the following day said that wouldn’t be the case until the end of the year. Either way, city officials said they doubted the county’s authority to unilaterally discontinue the board.
In the coming months, it looks as though both parties will continue their respective plans separately – one in the courts, the other in the planning takeover process.
“I’m not very optimistic,” Jenson said. “I’m always open to discussion and talking, but I don’t perceive at this point any real encouragement for that.”
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