WHITEFISH – In an issue that was framed as a battle over the very character of Whitefish, the city council rejected a controversial proposal to expand retail along U.S. Highway 93. The unanimous vote came after overwhelming public testimony in opposition to the plan.
On Aug. 16, city council continued a public hearing from Aug. 2 in its consideration of allowing more retail uses in the WB-2 Secondary Business District. The WB-2 zone is located on Highway 93 between Sixth Street and the intersection with Montana Highway 40.
Council voted unanimously to scrap the proposal, following considerable public comment – both written and spoken at the public hearings – that indicated many residents believe more retail on Highway 93 would hurt the economic core of downtown and diminish tourism. A handful of residents, including property owners in the WB-2 zone, spoke in favor of the proposal.
City councilors agreed to eventually pursue a “corridor study” to research the best ways to utilize the area along Highway 93 at the city’s entrance. Council voted to direct staff to explore better methods of zoning enforcement and to find a way to grandfather in existing nonconforming businesses.
Chris Schustrom, co-owner of the Garden Wall Inn, called the council’s vote a “very positive thing for Whitefish.”
“It wasn’t just a threat to downtown vitality, it was a threat to the whole community,” Schustrom said. “You don’t want to dilute the economic engine that’s driving Whitefish, which is downtown Whitefish.”
The WB-2 district was established in 1982 to accommodate commercial uses too large or require too much parking for the downtown WB-3 zone. Zoning regulations specifically outline what types of businesses can operate in the district as either “permitted uses” or “conditional uses.”
Meanwhile, zoning allows “retail sales and service” as a general use to promote retail activity in the city’s core.
“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 said in a staff report.
For the past two years, the city has been exploring possible zoning changes in the WB-2 district, after inconsistencies had been brought to city officials’ attention. Several businesses, such as hair salons and video rental locations, have opened up over the years that are considered nonconforming under existing code.
An ad-hoc committee formed in fall of 2009 and met on multiple occasions between February and April of this year, playing an advisory role to the planning board and city council. The committee discussed how best to deal with the nonconforming businesses and possible ways to improve enforcement.
Through the committee’s discussions, the prospect of expanding allowed retail uses in the WB-2 also emerged, with three committee members opposed and four members in favor. Divided on those 4-3 lines, the committee sent suggestions on to the Whitefish City-County Planning Board, which ultimately voted 5-2 to recommend allowing more retail uses along Highway 93.
The planning board-approved proposal included additional permitted uses such as sporting good stores, personal services and convenience stores. It also recommended expanding conditional uses to include discount and department retail stores and others. The council reviewed that proposal at its Aug. 2 and 16 meetings.
Proponents of the proposal, including committee members Bill Halama and Jeff Jensen, argued that changing zoning along Highway 93 would help spur economic growth in Whitefish. Halama was the developer for Walgreen’s and Jensen is the owner of the Holiday Plaza strip mall on Highway 93.
Opponents often pointed to the Mountain Mall, which they said nearly killed downtown in the mid-1980s. They argued that existing zoning has treated the city well and shouldn’t be touched. These themes were echoed repeatedly on Aug. 2 and 16.
“This isn’t something that’s trivial,” John Frandsen told city council. “There’s 30 years of precedent.”
Council agreed that grandfathering in existing businesses so they are not considered nonconforming is a top priority, as is finding more effective enforcement techniques.
Also, Tee Baur, who owns property at the intersection of Highway 93 and Highway 40 offered $5,000 to go toward a corridor study and another $5,000 upon completion of the study. Councilor Turner Askew recommended not accepting the money yet and waiting to see if money for such a study becomes available after the next state Legislature.
Councilor John Muhlfeld thanked Askew and Councilor Phil Mitchell for their work on the ad-hoc committee. Mitchell suggested that next time a similar issue comes up, the city should work out details like a corridor study before forming a committee.
“It could have saved me 200 hours of meetings,” Mitchell said.