Commissioners Approve New Zoning Designation

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County commissioners approved a new zoning designation Wednesday, smoothing the path for the county’s takeover of the Whitefish “doughnut” area and adding a new planning tool to the county’s repertoire.

Commissioners Joe Brenneman and Dale Lauman voted 2-0 Wednesday morning to approve the addition of the suburban residential 2.5-acre zoning designation. Commissioner Gary Hall was not present for the vote. No one from the public spoke during the public comment period.

Before Wednesday’s change, county zoning options jumped from one-acre to five-acre lots. Assistant Planning Director BJ Grieve told commissioners 2.5-acre zoning would give planning staff and the county a “more diverse menu of options” for land-use designations.

“I think some people have found that a five-acre lot is sometimes too big to maintain as a yard and too small to farm,” Grieve said. “This zoning will create more of a flowing transition from urban to rural areas.”

The new zoning option will also ease the county’s takeover of the two-mile planning and zoning area surrounding Whitefish, commonly referred to as the “doughnut.” In March, the commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind an interlocal agreement between the city and the county, and since then have been taking steps to reclaim planning and zoning jurisdiction within the doughnut area.

But when the city took over planning and zoning for the doughnut in 2005, it implemented city zoning on all un-zoned land within the two-mile area, creating a checkerboard combination of city and county zoning. The 2.5-acre zoning was one of several areas where city and county zoning designations didn’t match up.

“That was the impetus for addressing this,” Grieve said. “But it’s also something the county needed anyway. For example, the Riverdale Neighborhood Plan calls for 2.5-acre zoning.”

Commissioner Brenneman questioned whether the new zoning option would drastically increase density in neighborhoods where people would apply to change from five-acre to 2.5 acre zoning. The 2.5-acre zoning, he stressed, should be used as a transition between rural and urban – not as a way to increase density, especially in areas where roads and services are already stressed by overuse.

“People should know at least one commissioner isn’t going to support more development in these areas without mitigation of (road) dust,” he said.

Lauman agreed and the pair made an addition to the zoning language, saying it applied only to areas that had the infrastructure to support it, including paved roads.

“Our other zoning language isn’t this specific,” Grieve said after the vote. “If we had this level of specificity in all of them, it would be very helpful to staff.”