County Moves Forward With ‘Full Takeover’ of Doughnut

By Beacon Staff

While both Whitefish and Flathead County continue vowing to find a non-litigious resolution that gives each side a share of authority in the doughnut, the county is “moving forward with full takeover” in the absence of such an agreement.

Adding another twist to the dispute is a notice of appeal filed on behalf of proposed intervenors Ed McGrew and Dan Weinberg in the state Supreme Court on Nov. 18 claiming that a district court judge’s July ruling to drop litigation between the county and city based on the 2010 interlocal agreement was premature and in error.

County Commissioner Jim Dupont met with Whitefish mayor elect John Muhfeld and Councilors Bill Kahle and Chris Hyatt on Nov. 30 to discuss options for split governance over the roughly two-mile area surrounding Whitefish city limits called the doughnut.

Flathead County has already initiated plans to implement interim zoning in the doughnut, effectively taking a step toward claiming authority. While Dupont made clear he encourages discussions like the one on Nov. 30 with city officials, he said the county will continue assuming control of the doughnut unless some other agreement is reached.

“We’re moving forward with full takeover on the county side,” Dupont said. “Does that mean we’re not going to talk with them? No. I’ll talk to them, certainly.”

After their meeting with Dupont, both Kahle and Muhlfeld said they were pleased the county is willing to keep discussions alive. But Muhlfeld noted that the longer an agreement is delayed and the farther the county gets into its zoning plans, the fewer options the city will have. He said requesting an injunction from Flathead District Court would be a “last resort.”

“I’m not willing to let our options slide off the table,” Muhlfeld said.

In the interim, Muhlfeld said the city will likely prepare a letter for commissioners asking them to agree to a “status quo position or period of time” while negotiations continue.

Meanwhile, the city is maintaining its stance that after Whitefish voters’ repeal of the 2010 interlocal agreement, the two sides now revert back to the 2005 interlocal agreement. The county’s position is that the 2005 agreement no longer exists.

Kahle said “it seems like the city and the county both want to come up with a solution outside of the courtroom, which is great.” He considers “litigation a loss,” where the two sides’ relationship goes from “cooperative to adversarial.”

“At this point what I’m hoping for is some kind of cooperative agreement where the city maintains some authority in the doughnut area, at least in the corridors and the gateways and the lake and the watershed,” Kahle said.

Attorney John Lacey, who filed the notice of appeal on behalf of McGrew and Weinberg, said his clients’ action triggers a briefing period where all parties involved in the litigation will have an opportunity to make arguments in Helena, a process that may last months. The appeal seeks to keep alive the issue of whether the 2005 agreement is valid.

“My clients believe Judge (Katherine) Curtis’ July order relying upon 2010 was premature and the voters of Whitefish confirmed that by their repeal in November,” Lacey said.