Tempers Flare as Planning Board Approves Zone Changes

Text amendment and zone changes on land south of Whitefish move on to Flathead County Commission

By Molly Priddy
U.S. Highway 93 south of Whitefish on May 3, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

On May 10, the Flathead County Planning Board voted unanimously to pass along a positive recommendation of zone changes and a new overlay district for the land just south of Whitefish’s city boundary.

But the board also sent a message to the City of Whitefish, not through email or a letter, but through Whitefish Planning Director David Taylor.

And that message was peppered with words like “underwhelmed,” “compromise,” “what the hell kind of reality are we living in here?”

The planning board put a bookend on what has been a years-long project revamping the zoning for property located within a two-mile belt around the Whitefish city limits, an area known as the doughnut.

Whitefish and the county fought over planning rights for the area, with the state Supreme Court eventually siding with the county in a 2014 ruling. Since then, the land has been back in county control.

Residents of the area along the city’s southern border were asked to come up with an idea for their area, which contains U.S. Highway 93’s southern approach to the city.

Land Solutions LLC came on board the project as the technical consultant, drawing up a corridor plan for the area. The resulting work led to citizen-initiated requests for a new text amendment creating the South Whitefish Overlay, which would have standards for landscaping, buffering, signage, lighting, building design, and parking, similar to the standards used by the City of Whitefish.

The overlay, which the board recommended approving on May 10, would stretch 1.5 miles south and a quarter mile east and west of the highway’s right-of-way, encompassing roughly 490 acres.

Within the overlay were multiple citizen-initiated zone-change requests, shifting the land from agricultural to business designations: About 37 acres of SAG-5 (suburban agriculture) would become B2-A (secondary business); about 79 acres of SAG-5 would become BSD (business service district); and about 145 acres of AG-20 (agricultural) would become SAG-5.

Businesses already operate in this highway corridor despite the agricultural designations with the use of conditional use permits. Several business owners from the area said they were in support of the changes, because it would allow for growth and opportunity on land that has been held in limbo for a decade.

Other residents from the affected or adjacent areas spoke, several in favor of the changes, while others were concerned about how close the business districts would be to their neighborhoods.

The board voted unanimously to send the plan on to the county commission, and the board recommended to the commission that it should approve the changes and the text amendment. The board also directed the technical representative – Dave DeGrandpre from Land Solutions – to work with landowners in the Emerald Heights neighborhood who expressed concern about being located near a B-2A zone allowing uses such as truck stops and gas stations.

Other changes to the document included adjusting the findings of fact to include recent work on traffic safety, shifting a parcel from one designation to another, and deciding if the proposed zones would be compatible with Whitefish and its plans for growth.

That last item set off board member Greg Stevens, who blew up over the board’s apparent consternation about the zones being compatible or adding mitigating language to say they “appear” to be compatible.

“What the hell kind of reality are we living in here?” Stevens asked the board.

He said the language for the proposed zones came directly from Whitefish’s own regulations, and that the city’s reluctance to support the zone changes is a power move to protect the businesses in the city’s downtown.

“They’re compatible,” an exasperated Stevens said. “This is getting to be insane.”

He said the City of Whitefish’s ideas for future land use should be considered, but they shouldn’t dominate the conversation, since the Supreme Court put planning power back in the county’s hands.

“It’s obvious what the hell’s going on,” Stevens said. “They’re protecting all those businesses in the city of Whitefish. These poor people (living in the doughnut) have been prisoners for over 10 years.”

Board chairman Jeff Larsen also let off a little steam about what he felt was a lack of participation on Whitefish’s part. He said the zoning would be compatible and that his concerns about the changes had been addressed in changes made to the document; the first iteration came about in January, which was then workshopped in March to be discussed at the May 10 meeting.

“We’ve done everything we can do to make this compatible,” Larsen said. “It’s time to do something and move forward.”

Dean Sirucek rounded out the meeting by thanking Whitefish City Planning Director David Taylor for updated maps, and then asked him to relay a message.

“I’m underwhelmed by the participation of Whitefish,” Sirucek said. “It’s shocking almost.”

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