Whitefish Housing Project Receives Nod from Planning Board

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Following a lengthy and impassioned public hearing, the Whitefish City-County Planning Board approved a housing project on East Second Street after developers reconfigured the site plan for a third time in an effort to address residents’ acute concerns about density, neighborhood aesthetic and public safety.

The contentious project, called the 2nd Street Residences, had twice been reviewed and tabled by the planning board in the months prior to its most recent monthly meeting on July 18. The proposal finally moved forward despite public resistance to the revised site plan, which has been pared back to quell opposition from neighborhood residents.

In its third iteration, the development has undergone significant revisions but continued to elicit strong opposition from a packed chamber at Whitefish City Hall. Only a handful of residents, along with the members of the development team, voiced support for the project during a four-hour meeting that was beset by fervent public comments.

Still, planning board members commended the development team led by Sean Averill and Will MacDonald, of Community Infill Partners, LLC, praising their perseverance and flexibility in delivering a project that adds an element of affordable housing to a market characterized by a dearth of low-cost rentals. Their efforts to work with neighbors, address public concerns and remedy problems also drew kudos, though residents insisted the final revision falls short of responsible development as defined by zoning statutes and the Whitefish Growth Policy.

Some board members remained apprehensive about pedestrian safety and increased traffic volume, the solutions to which remained vague, but ultimately voted 5-1 in favor of the project.

The Whitefish City Council will take up the issue at its Aug. 19 meeting.

Planning board member Mary Vail cast the lone vote in opposition to the project, saying she wished to address a slate of lingering concerns before moving the project forward with a recommendation for approval.

“I just feel like we should have all of our ducks in a row before we make a decision,” Vail said to a roomful of applause. “I don’t feel like I have all the information.”

Residents living adjacent to the project site said the the plan, which calls for 143 units – down from the original proposal’s 174 units – was still too dense for a residential area with a traditionally rural, agricultural character, and the uptick in traffic would pose a safety threat to bikers and pedestrians.

Located on East Second Street east of Cow Creek and north of the intersection with Armory Road, the three parcels are at 100 Wild Rose Ln. and 1500 E. Second St.

“We’ve been listening to the residents of the neighborhood and we have whittled the density down to address those residents’ concerns,” Aaron Wallace, the principal architect, said.

The residents said they were not “anti-development” but “anti- bad development,” and that even after three revisions the project, which the developers touted as responsible infill, did not fit the rural character of the neighborhood.

“We are not anti-growth. Never were, never are, and we will not be with regard to this project,” Bob Horn, an urban planner and neighborhood resident, said. “We just want to see growth that respects our neighborhood. We appreciate the developers working with us. I’m just sorry that a favorable plan did not come to fruition.”

The project also does not comply with current zoning designations, and will require blending the densities of two zoning designations across the project’s 23 acres. The re-zoning designation prompted sharp criticism from residents who decried it as “spot zoning” and said it deviates from the city’s growth policy.

The developers are proposing 143 units, including 92 apartments in 29 buildings, 20 attached condominiums in nine buildings and 16 single-family homes with fifteen accessory, or “mother-in-law,” apartments.

Phyllis Quatman, a resident living on nearby Johns Way, said the project fulfills a need in the community by applying infill to accommodate the city’s expansive growth and by providing an affordable housing component. But it ultimately misses the mark, she said.

“Yes, we do need affordable housing and, yes, infill is a good idea. But this is not the lot to put in high-density housing. No one supports this,” Quatman said.

Averill, the developer, said his team has taken painstaking steps to resolve the concerns of residents and while he realizes it’s unlikely to receive broad support in the immediate future it will be a boon to the community.

“There is a need for affordable rentals in this community. We can’t make everybody happy but we think we’ve done a very good job,” Averill said. “This is a project we are proud of.”

A series of pedestrian trails will run through the development, connecting buildings to one another and to public streets, while nearly 70 percent of the development is designated open space and protects swaths of forest.

“The proposal locks these forests in protection. Not only are they being protected but this plan proposes a public trail, which will preserve this area as an amenity,” board member Greg Gunderson said.

“The first time we didn’t feel like we were there, and the second time we didn’t feel like we were there, either. But with these improvements I feel there’s a huge step in the right direction,” Gunderson added.

The overall density of the project is 6.02 dwelling units per acre, down from the originally proposed density of 7.31 units per acre, while the number of apartments was trimmed back from 164 to 92.

A traffic study stood out as another major point of contention, and planning board member Chad Phillips, who supported the project, agreed that infrastructure changes to Armory Road must happen immediately if the neighborhoods is to experience a significant uptick in traffic volume. He offered a friendly amendment to expedite construction of a sidewalk, a measure that planning officials said was unlikely given the backlog of projects, or, in the alternative, a multi-use path system.

“I can’t in good conscience vote for this without offering” Armory Road residents some timeline for the construction of a sidewalk or multi-use path, Phillips said.

“It’s already unsafe,” he said. “I can’t imagine adding 1,000 additional [vehicle] trips per day.”

As the meeting dragged on into the night, none of the board members arrived at a decision easily, but finally agreed to recommend the project for approval by city council.

“I’ve really struggled with this. But I believe it is totally in compliance with the growth policy,” board member Ken Meckel said.

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