City Council Approves Whitefish Lakeshore Regulations

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – At a Whitefish City Council meeting last week, Mayor Mike Jenson announced he would be strictly enforcing the three-minute timer for public comment. He was fully aware that people still had plenty to say about the city’s lakeshore regulations.

Although the public hearing on the updated regulations had already ended the previous meeting, opponents and proponents alike used the open public comment period at the beginning of the July 6 meeting to plead their case. For more than an hour, the discussion – which was not without its barbs and jabs – centered on Whitefish, Lost Coon and Blanchard lakes.

In the end, those in favor of the revised regulations won the day. The city council voted 5-1 to implement the regulations with nine amendments, representing the first significant update to lakeshore protection laws in Whitefish in nearly 30 years. Turner Askew cast the lone dissenting vote.

Over the weeks leading up to the July 6 meeting, debate had seeped out of city meeting rooms and into the airwaves. Radio ads sponsored by opponents of the regulations urged citizens to get informed because, unknowingly, they may be losing their right to skip rocks in Whitefish Lake, among other rights.

Jim Stack, a member of the lakeshore protection committee, stepped up to the podium and ridiculed the ads as “blatantly false.” He emphasized that the proposed changes constitute a necessary update – not a complete overhaul – of the existing regulations. They also clarify parts of the old rules.

“This update makes very few content changes,” Stack said.

Several other people addressed the radio ads, including longtime lakeshore protection committee member Dewey Hartman. Hartman said the “11th-hour” opposition movement was relaying on a strategy of “fear, diversion and lawyer speak.”

“I think it’s not befitting of an intelligent conversation,” Hartman said.

Opponents questioned whether the regulations would stand up in court if legally challenged. Sharon Morrison, a local attorney and member of the lakeshore protection committee, doesn’t believe they will. She was an author, along with two other dissenting lakeshore protection committee members, of a minority report in opposition to the proposed version of regulations.

Saying she “has some matters of great concern,” Morrison argued that the updated regulations don’t mesh with state statutes.

“If there is litigation on this, and I feel as though there will be, this is what you’ll meet,” Morrison told city councilors.

Councilor Nick Palmer asked City Attorney John Phelps about Morrison’s concerns. Phelps said both he and the county attorney believe the regulations are legally sound.

“In my opinion, we’re on solid ground,” Phelps said.

George Culpepper and Charles Lapp each sought to clear the air on rumors that Flathead County officials support the regulations. They said, as of the July 6 meeting, neither planning board members nor county commissioners had signed off on the new regulations.

“I guess I would like to inform you that you’ve been misled on that,” Lapp said.

The regulations address a wide range of issues, everything from dredging to docks to lawns to setbacks. They also outline the permitting process for construction on lakeside properties. Their purpose is to “protect the fragile, pristine character of Whitefish area lakes and the intertwined adjacent riparian and upland areas.”