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Expanded Retail Considered in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

At its Aug. 16 meeting, the Whitefish City Council will consider a zoning text amendment that would alter long-standing zoning regulations and increase the types of businesses allowed along U.S. Highway 93 South.

The proposal is opposed by downtown advocates, including business owners and representatives from the Heart of Whitefish and the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau, who argue that changing regulations in the Highway 93 zone hurts the city’s central retail core.

Proponents, including business and property owners in the zone at question, believe the amendment would encourage economic growth in the city and that people should have more flexibility in choosing where they want to open their businesses.

Council discussed the zoning amendment at its Aug. 2 meeting and directed the Planning and Building Department to remove certain language concerning shopping centers and malls – though they would not be prohibited – and then provide a revised draft on Aug. 16.

The amendment includes both additional “permitted uses” and “conditional uses.” Among the proposed permitted uses are sporting good stores, personal services and convenience stores. Conditional uses include discount and department retail stores and manufactured home sales.

The WB-2 Secondary Business District is located along Highway 93 South between Sixth Street and the intersection with Montana Highway 40. The WB-2 district, in its current form, was established in 1982 as a zone to accommodate commercial uses that are too large or require too much parking for the downtown WB-3 zone.

“This intent makes it clear that most retail and commercial activities should occur in the WB-3, which protects the downtown as the economic center of Whitefish,” Planning and Building Director Dave Taylor wrote in his report to city council.

Current zoning outlines “retail sales and service” as a generally allowed use downtown. The WB-2 district, meanwhile, specifically lists the type of retail uses that are appropriate for the area.

Among the businesses allowed in the WB-2 district are grocery stores, furniture outlets, hotels, casinos in a designated overlay zone, warehouses and appliance stores.

For more than two years the city has been exploring the possibility of “broadening the allowed uses within the WB-2 zone in a way that is consistent with the zone’s intent,” Taylor said in his report. It had been brought to the planning board’s attention that there were inconsistencies with how the allowed uses were being administered.

Several businesses, such as hair salons, sporting goods stores and video rental locations, have opened up over the years that could be considered non-conforming under the existing code, Taylor said.

After the planning board and council both looked into the issue, an ad-hoc committee was formed in fall of 2009. The committee met on multiple occasions between February and April of this year, playing an advisory role to the planning board and city council.

In a July 27 letter signed by three of the committee’s seven members, titled “Minority Position Statement,” Ian Collins, Brian Schott and Seth Henry Roberts voiced their concerns to the city council. One concern was the committee’s structure, in which the other four members consisted of two property owners in the district and two councilors.

The two property owners are Bill Halama, who developed the Walgreen’s site, and Jeff Jensen, owner of the Holiday Plaza strip mall. The two councilors are Turner Askew and Phil Mitchell.

“Every vote that dealt with the expansion of retail in the WB-2 broke down 4-3; our three votes versus the other two committee members – who stand to benefit directly from retail expansion on the strip – along with the two council representatives,” they wrote.

The letter continued: “In hindsight, we think it is ineffective to have an advisory committee, with the sole purpose to make a recommendation to the council, which includes councilors as voting members, especially when their views are so aligned.”

Schott, Collins and Roberts echoed the concerns of downtown business owners, opposing the “development of unlimited, small-scale retail in strip malls and shopping centers.”

“We believe these changes will be extremely hazardous to the health of existing downtown businesses, and the future of our town,” the letter stated.

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