WHITEFISH – After considering, rejecting, and then reconsidering a proposal to change zoning regulations along U.S. Highway 93, the Whitefish City Council has tabled the issue until January.
At a public meeting on Nov. 15, the council heard from more than 40 members of the public who all spoke in opposition to the proposal, which would allow more retail uses in the WB-2 Secondary Business District on Highway 93.
The council appeared poised to vote on the proposal but was told by City Manager Chuck Stearns that, since it’s an ordinance and not a resolution, approval would have needed a 4-1 vote instead of a simple majority of 3-2. Councilor Bill Kahle, recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident, was absent, as was Mayor Mike Jenson.
Councilors Turner Askew and Phil Mitchell indicated they would vote in favor of the proposal but with John Muhlfeld and Friel voicing opposition, it was clear an adequate majority would not be possible even if Chris Hyatt voted in favor.
Council then voted to postpone the vote until its Jan. 18 meeting. Friel said the proposal, while trying to fix existing problems, presents new problems.
“If we’re creating new problems, how are we solving anything?” Friel said.
The downtown merchants group Heart of Whitefish has offered an alternative proposal to address the zoning concerns – which include nonconforming businesses – in the WB-2 district.
Ian Collins, the group’s chairman, told council that the city was the recipient of a $3.5 million federal TIGER grant – one of two cities in the state to receive the grant – in large part because downtown has been so carefully planned out. To switch up zoning on the city’s outskirts, he argued, would diminish the substantial progress made downtown.
Collins said that while the proposal identifies building size guidelines for certain retail uses, it leaves holes for commercial developers to exploit.
“There’s nothing in here that doesn’t prohibit cookie-cutter 14,000-square-foot strip malls,” Collins said.
Bob Blickenstaff said Whitefish has created a unique atmosphere that needs to be protected, which was a sentiment echoed throughout the night.
“We have done something here that we need to be very careful to hold on to,” Blickenstaff said.
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