WHITEFISH – An ongoing land dispute involving Flathead County, the city of Whitefish and a group of residents caught in between has become so ingrained in daily conversation that it’s changed the vernacular in Northwest Montana.
Say “doughnut people” at a coffee shop and the person next to you will nod in recognition, and likely have an opinion. And people with no prior interest in, or knowledge of, land-use issues now throw around terms like “planning jurisdiction,” “two-mile radius” and “interlocal agreement.”
One word that has remained elusive is “solution.” But a committee is prepared to take perhaps the boldest step yet toward finding a solution outside of the courtroom.
The committee, made up of representatives from the county, city and doughnut jurisdiction, gave final approval at a June 23 meeting to direct attorneys to draft a proposed amendment to the current interlocal agreement that would address four main issues.
Those four issues are: representation for the doughnut residents, a duration clause for the interlocal agreement, a termination clause and a cost-sharing plan to fairly distribute administrative expenses between the city and county.
Whitefish City Councilor Bill Kahle, who is on the committee, stressed that the proposal is far from a final answer. Many of the details are yet to be worked out.
“I don’t think this is the last step; I think this is the first step,” Kahle said.
On March 1, the Whitefish City Council voted to request that Flathead County District Court Judge Katherine Curtis delay her final decision in a lawsuit between the city and county by 90 days. Later that month, the committee held its first meeting. Curtis then granted the request.
The original committee consisted of Kahle, fellow Councilor Chris Hyatt and City Manager Chuck Stearns representing Whitefish and Commissioner Jim Dupont from the county. Doughnut residents Diane Smith and Lyle Phillips were then added.
The committee has held two meetings a month since its inaugural gathering on March 23. It is tasked with finding fair representation for residents in the doughnut, a roughly two-mile area surrounding Whitefish city limits.
On June 9, Whitefish Mayor Mike Jenson proposed a “township” concept, similar to the community councils set up in Bigfork and Lakeside. In this case, the “township” council would consist of doughnut residents to give them a degree of self-governance.
Then at a June 21 meeting, the Whitefish City Council discussed the township proposal. While Kahle didn’t rule it out as an option, he raised questions over how such an entity should be created and whether it can be legislative, not just advisory.
Kahle introduced the proposal to direct attorneys to draft an amendment to the interlocal agreement, emphasizing that the plan was only a rough outline. Kahle said the three attorneys involved in the litigation – the county’s, the city’s and the lawyer for a third-party intervener – would draft the proposal.
Mayor Jenson questioned the plan’s specifics and its reliance on attorneys, at one point saying: “I’m not seeing that we’re having the input. The attorneys are.”
Councilor John Muhlfeld echoed some of Jenson’s worries. Also, since the meeting was City Attorney John Phelps’ last before retirement, the council said it was important to note that incoming Mary VanBuskirk will inherit the task.
The council voted unanimously for the committee to pursue the draft amendment. Alan McCormick, the county’s attorney in the litigation, Sean Frampton, the third party’s attorney, and VanBuskirk are expected to produce a draft before the committee meets again on July 14.