Whitefish Takes Control of Planning Doughnut

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County must honor a 2005 interlocal agreement with Whitefish and concede control of the “planning doughnut,” according to a ruling issued on Wednesday by Judge Katherine Curtis in Flathead County District Court.

The decision refutes a vote last year by county commissioners to rescind the interlocal agreement and essentially returns the long-running controversy back to where it began, pending a future trial.

The planning doughnut is a roughly two-mile area surrounding the city limits of Whitefish. A 2005 interlocal agreement gave land-use and jurisdictional authority of the doughnut to Whitefish, but over the past two years the county has made efforts to obtain control of the area. The boldest move came in March of last year when county commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind the agreement.

By issuing her decision, Curtis reinforces in its entirety the 2005 interlocal agreement. The ruling also upholds a Jan. 13 preliminary injunction that prevents county officials from taking further action in planning and land-use decisions within the doughnut. However, two lakeshore permits issued by the county last December “shall remain in full force and effect.”

The decision does not affect two pending motions by third parties to intervene in the case.

The ruling is a significant victory for Whitefish that wipes away its previous losses in this drawn-out skirmish. After county commissioners voted to rescind the agreement and therefore assume control of the disputed jurisdiction last March, Whitefish asked Judge Curtis for a preliminary injunction to prevent county officials from moving forward with implementing policies and laws. Curits denied the motion.

Whitefish made the same appeal to the Montana Supreme Court and was again denied. Meanwhile, the county moved forward with wrestling control of the doughnut. But then in December the Supreme Court reversed its decision and directed the District Court to issue the injunction.

In her ruling, Curtis acknowledges an amicus brief filed by the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors that discusses at length the implications of a controversial Whitefish land-use law called the critical areas ordinance (CAO).

Curtis addresses both NMAR’s concerns and the city’s claims that NMAR has circulated misleading information.

“The court agrees with the city that the effects and implications, including the costs, of the CAO cannot be considered by this court at this stage of the litigation,” Curtis writes. “The same applies, however, to the city’s response concerning the procedures of NMAR and the alleged ‘misinformation’ promulgated by the association.”

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