Whitefish Council to Consider Resort-Style Project at Old Hospital Site

By Beacon Staff

After narrowly passing the Whitefish planning board, the first phase of a 51-home development at the site of the old North Valley Hospital will now go before the city council, making it the first full subdivision to fall subject to the critical areas ordinance.

On March 19, the planning board approved the Banks at Whitefish, a resort-style residential development, with a 4-3 vote. The council will review it on April 20. The planning board granted six deviations for the planned-unit development (PUD), among them an allowance to surpass the city’s 35-foot building height restriction.

The Aspen Group of Scottsdale, Ariz., purchased the 11.75-acre plot of land in June of 2007 for $6.4 million. The site is located between U.S. Highway 93 and the Whitefish River, south of 13th Street.

Plans call for 42 townhouse lots and nine single-family residence lots, along with a possible clubhouse that is in the conceptual planning stages. The single-family residences will be built along the Whitefish River, while 45-foot tall, three-story townhouses will be tucked further inland. The hospital itself will be torn down and the space used for future development. Also, 3.22 acres have been set aside for open space.

The three dissenting planning board members – Kerry Crittenden, Steve Qunell and Scott Sorensen – expressed concern at the March 19 meeting over the deviations and the project’s density. Crittenden feels the city, by granting a PUD with deviations instead of a straightforward subdivision approval, would be making concessions to accommodate the development’s density without the developer giving enough back in return.

Along with the greater height allowance for the townhouses, the other five deviations were for road width, sidewalk requirements, lighting standards, setbacks and off-street parking.

With a PUD, Crittenden said, the city allows certain variances to its rules in exchange for the developers making their own concessions. Crittenden believes The Aspen Group’s extension of Columbia Avenue for improved traffic flow and the addition of a bike path are admirable, but said the developer would have had to implement those features with an ordinary subdivision application anyway, without being granted the PUD variances. The developer also will dedicate a public access to the river.

In addition, Crittenden said he was concerned that the development doesn’t address the issue of affordable housing.

“They really offered nothing back to city,” Crittenden said. “The developer says, these are your benefits, but they’re not really benefits.”

As part of the planning stages, a geotechnical study was conducted and four critical areas were identified as defined by the critical areas ordinance: areas with high groundwater, the river, wetlands and slopes. The entire plot of land slopes to the river and the degree of the slopes varies between 10 and 40 percent grades.

The developer submitted a critical-areas review and has taken measures to address each of the critical areas. A final site stability analysis will be reviewed by the city at the time of the engineering plan submittal.

The Aspen Group is also developing the large Starling project on 640 acres near Glacier High School in Kalispell.

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