County Takes Control of Planning Doughnut

Whitefish to form a city planning board now that city-county planning board no longer exists

By Molly Priddy

Flathead County has taken over sole planning jurisdictional control of the doughnut, a long-embattled area of land around the Whitefish city limits.

After a recent state Supreme Court decision siding with Flathead County in a years-long legal battle over control between the county and Whitefish, the Whitefish City Council sent the Flathead County Commission a notice that the city would be creating a new planning board to replace the current Whitefish City-County Planning Board.

“We send this notification in an effort to resolve concerns with the interlocal agreement’s jurisdictional authority of the present Whitefish City-County Planning Board, since the interlocal agreement has been terminated, following the July 14, 2014 Montana Supreme Court decision,” Whitefish Mayor John Mulfeld’s cover letter to the commission stated.

In its Aug. 6 response, the county commission wrote that the county intends to take full control of the doughnut, despite Whitefish’s offer to ease the transition with gradual change.

“The City of Whitefish’s offer of aid in the gradual transition of jurisdiction to Flathead County is greatly appreciated; however given the City’s denial to exercise jurisdiction and the prompt need to serve the citizenry within the (doughnut), the County has no option but to begin administering immediate control over the (doughnut),” the commission wrote.

“Although Flathead County has historically taken a position contrary to this point, Flathead County has determined it necessary to begin administering authority instantaneously given the vacuum of governance over the (doughnut). Flathead County would appreciate cooperation from the City so as to affect a smooth transfer of administration at this time.”

Last July, Flathead County District Court Judge David Ortley granted summary judgment to the county, which the city disputed and appealed to the Supreme Court.

The lawsuit has been ongoing for years, beginning after the Flathead County Commission voted in 2008 to rescind a 2005 interlocal agreement with Whitefish over jurisdiction of the doughnut.

Whitefish sued in response to the rescindment. Eventually, the city and county tried to resolve the issue outside of court, which produced the 2010 interlocal agreement that is a central issue in the lawsuit.

In November 2011, Whitefish city voters repealed the 2010 interlocal agreement through a referendum vote, after which four residents filed a lawsuit asking Ortley to declare the referendum illegal and void, arguing that it was an administrative, rather than legislative, act.

The city of Whitefish and four interveners, however, argued the referendum was legal and valid, and that the county and Whitefish should revert back to the original 2005 agreement.

Ortley ruled that the referendum was invalid, and that the 2010 agreement was in effect. His decision was appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled 4-3 in favor of the county in July.

Attorney Duncan Scott, who represented the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit, praised the county for taking sole control of the doughnut.

“It took six years of litigation to liberate the doughnut from Whitefish’s iron fist. This is a historic moment. We can hear champagne corks popping across the Valley,” Scott wrote in a prepared statement. “We applaud the Commissioners for moving swiftly to restore representation and protect the public interest.”

After the commission finalized its Aug. 6 letter to Whitefish, the Flathead County Planning and Zoning Department sent out a notice about the new transition. Director BJ Grieve said that by taking over the doughnut, the county will add roughly 3,000 residents and about 30 square miles to the its land-use administration.

Anyone with questions about their property can call or visit the planning office, Grieve said.

“I can’t promise everything will be easy or everyone will get what they want, but I can promise our office will do our best to serve the public promptly and with professional empathy,” Grieve wrote. “We’ve got a great staff who are excited to help out however we’re needed.”

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