An atmosphere of conflict has surrounded the governing styles of the city of Whitefish and Flathead County for at least 20 years, and today that environment is as strained as ever due to a fractious system of land-use planning in the two-mile radius surrounding Whitefish.
For years, a long, litigious turf war over the amorphous planning “doughnut” hamstrung development in the corridor south of Whitefish, but as the county prepares to exercise its zoning authority in the planning belt — while refusing Whitefish’s pleas to craft a joint corridor plan that would carefully steer development toward the city’s compatibility standards — the controversy has reached a fever pitch.
The impasse was on full display earlier this month when the Flathead County Planning Board put the finishing touches on a years-long project to revamp the zoning standards in the doughnut, which includes putting side rails in place to control landscaping, buffering, signage, lighting, building design, and parking, similar to the standards employed by the city of Whitefish.
But doing so without the benefit of a joint corridor plan has been called “short-sighted” by Whitefish’s city leaders, and when the discussion turned toward determining whether the proposed zone changes were in line with Whitefish’s standards and “compatible” with the city’s plans for growth, board member Greg Stevens erupted.
“They’re compatible. It’s obvious what the hell is going on. People in the city are trying to foist their future land maps upon the county residents,” Stevens said, raising his voice. “They are protecting those businesses inside the city limits of Whitefish, and they are stifling every kind of business outside the city limits of Whitefish. That’s what’s going on.”
That set off board member Rita Hall, who compared Whitefish’s style of governance unfavorably to a dictatorship.
“We have the Whitefish Nazis overseeing what we’re doing. The Whitefish Nazis are watching us very, very carefully. And the Montana Supreme Court said the county has jurisdiction of zoning of the doughnut, yet we are submitting to Whitefish in so many ways,” she said. “This is a quagmire. We all know that.”
Understanding the root of the “quagmire” means unpacking a complex basket of legal issues dating back at least a decade.
In 2005, Flathead County granted the Whitefish City Council jurisdiction over land use and zoning regulations within the two-mile radius surrounding its city, effectively giving Whitefish control of the doughnut area.
The agreement quickly grew controversial as Whitefish flexed its authority to stymie industrial and commercial development in the gateways flanking the city, an effort designed to prevent eyesores from cropping up in its corridors and compromising the characteristics that make Whitefish unique.
That meant residents in the doughnut were affected by the Whitefish City Council’s land-use decisions, even though they didn’t enjoy the privilege of being able to vote for the councilors making the decisions, in some ways casting them into a jurisdictional limbo.
Meanwhile, county residents living on the brink of town don’t pay city taxes, yet they benefit from city services and enhanced property values.
By 2007, the tension between Whitefish and the county came to the fore when former Commissioner Gary Hall, who initially supported the interlocal agreement, rescinded his vote.
“I did not realize that it would turn into, in my opinion, the monster that it is,” Hall said at the time.
The interminable litigation that ensued created an impasse, further entrenching various sides of the issue previously on the brink of compromise.
Instead of an olive branch, a flurry of frustrating legal constraints were added to the dust cloud.
Hall’s move prompted Whitefish to sue the county, and the state Supreme Court granted Whitefish a preliminary injunction that gave control of the doughnut back to the city.
In 2010, Whitefish city councilors approved a revised interlocal agreement, but Whitefish residents voted to rescind that agreement. Back in court, a judge returned full authority of the doughnut to the county. The city appealed, and the high court temporarily stayed the decision until ultimately siding with the county, which now assumes control of this long-disputed area.
And while the city’s leaders say they’ve accepted the court’s decision and hope to channel a spirit of compromise with the county, a cooperative agreement remains out of reach.
“This isn’t anything new. It is an entrenched problem,” said former Whitefish Mayor Mike Jenson. “And I don’t have the solution. I don’t know what the solution is. It is something that goes back decades and it’s a tough one to untangle.”
One thing is for certain — the doughnut is at the center of the tangled knot, and any sense of collaboration between the city and the county to straighten the snarl has broken down.
In 2008 as mayor, Jenson made the extra-territorial jurisdiction issue a top priority. At the time he was hopeful of reaching an agreement with the county and doughnut residents. Today, as the controversy heats up again, Jenson isn’t so sure.
“Some of this arises from fundamental philosophical differences,” Jenson said. “Whitefish is very progressive and forward thinking and it takes a wholistic approach to what municipal governing should be. Flathead County tends to be a very authoritarian and power-based government. A mere two people can dictate policy in the county.”
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said his patience with the three-person board of the Flathead County Commission wore especially thin in March, when the commissioners declined his invitation to partner with Whitefish on the development of a corridor plan for Highway 93 South.
“We would like to sit down to come up with a solution that meets our needs, the county’s needs and the landowners’ needs,” Muhlfeld said of a plan for the corridor extending south of Highway 40.
However, in a written response signed by county commissioners Phil Mitchell and Gary Krueger, the county representatives rebuffed Whitefish’s invitation to pursue a “mutually agreeable process.”
“Our experience with Whitefish for the past decade teaches us that, at the end of the process, you likely will object and sue us,” according to the letter, which Commissioner Pam Holmquist declined to sign, saying she did not agree with its language, although she did oppose a joint corridor study in a separate letter. “You will seek an injunction and, if granted, the affected county property owners will be in limbo for years as the case slowly moves through the courts. We will not subject affected county corridor property owners, and county taxpayers, to this delay and risk.”
In multiple instances, Mitchell said the county’s decision to partner with Whitefish has been a “fool’s errand,” with Whitefish rejecting county input, including in its attempt to work with the city on the joint lakeshore protection regulations on Whitefish Lake.
“We conceded to every Whitefish demand and Whitefish never reciprocated,” according to the letter. “We learned that ‘working with Whitefish’ means doing it Whitefish’s way. It’s a one-way street.”
Discouraged by the letter, Muhlfeld said he was hopeful to resurrect a spirit of cooperation with the county at a time of increasing concern that its proposed zone changes south of Whitefish will increase commercial growth and traffic.
Doing so without the benefit of a corridor plan is “short-sighted,” Muhlfeld said, but he’s losing confidence in the city’s ability to make inroads with the county.
“The city’s ability to cooperate and find common ground with the county is at an all-time low in my opinion,” he said.
Muhlfeld said the county unfairly blames Whitefish city government for the citizens’ referendum initiative that overturned the revised interlocal agreement, which Mitchell said he wishes were still in place.
“That’s just not right,” Muhlfeld said. “Even after the referendum passed, former Commissioner Jim Dupont was open to having respectful, civil discourse with the city of Whitefish in an effort to find common ground and a path forward that would work for both the county and the city. The option isn’t even on the table at this point in my opinion.”
“The city accepted the Supreme Court decision, and still does,” he continued. “We are simply trying to resurrect some form of joint cooperation and planning with the county. That’s all we are asking, because ultimately, land-use decisions the county is making, in many cases, affects properties that someday will be annexed into and require services from Whitefish. I would imagine this issue is of equal concern to our neighbors in Kalispell and Columbia Falls.”
But Mitchell said he’s through trying to meet the city’s ad nauseam demands on land-use planning, calling Whitefish’s city leaders “inflexible.”
“I don’t know how to work with the city of Whitefish,” Mitchell said. “I do not. Because their method is to sit in the sandbox, insist on getting their way and then call it collaboration. I am burned out on it and I have to move on in life.”
The problem in the Flathead, according to people like Joe Brenneman, a fourth-generation Flathead resident and dairy farmer who previously served on the county planning board and the county commission (as a Democrat, no less), is that the rules as they exist are few, ambiguous and often overlooked.
Being flexible and forward-thinking on land-use planning issues is critical to shaping the Flathead Valley at a time of unprecedented growth, he said, and to maintaining its characteristics that make it an attractive place to live.
“Most of us like the open spaces and we like not having terrible traffic and we like the open farmland, so it’s just a bizarre dichotomy between what the people want and the question of how do we get there. And the ‘how do we get there’ question continues to devolve into personality disputes and court battles,” Brenneman said.
“That is what is going to ultimately doom the Flathead Valley,” he continued. “Because once we allow it to become hacked up with idiotic development, we are going to lose the only incentive that brings world-class surgeons and technology mavens here. They come because there are these outdoor opportunities and it’s a nice place to live. When this becomes Everywhere USA with out-of-control traffic and congestion, they are going to say, ‘Wait, this is just like wherever and I can make more money there.’”
Karen Reeves, a Whitefish-area resident who lives in the doughnut, said she foresees rapid commercial growth if the zoning is approved because numerous businesses would benefit from a proximity to Whitefish without residing inside city limits.
“Whitefish has tried to do it the right way and build out slowly and shouldn’t be punished for it,” Reeves said.
Members of the planning board said they took care to include Whitefish in a collaborative planning effort.
At the May 10 meeting during which planning board members Stevens and Hall were so critical of Whitefish’s leadership, board member Dean Sirucek said he was “underwhelmed by the participation of Whitefish.”
“It’s shocking almost,” Sirucek said.
Mayre Flowers, executive director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, who advocates for county-wide corridor standards, said brokering a better relationship between the county and Whitefish would benefit residents throughout the valley, but not if tempers keep flaring.
“The tirade against the city of Whitefish and its residents that Flathead County Planning Board members engaged in, and which was condoned by the planning board, was unacceptable and in violation of the fundamental principles of civil discourse,” Flowers said.
Brenneman said the widening gulf between the county and the city of Whitefish isn’t going to be bridged unless the county learns to see eye-to-eye with the city, and vice versa.
“Whitefish isn’t entirely without fault in this,” Brenneman said.
He said the critical areas ordinance, for example, was full of “bizarre” standards that the city was “hell-bent on shoving down the county residents’ throats.”
Still, having served as the lone Democrat on the traditionally conservative board of commissioners, Brenneman was sympathetic to Whitefish’s troubles.
“The county commissioners are forgetting that their responsibility is to all county residents, including Whitefish. But that doesn’t seem to bother them,” Brenneman said, adding that the county commissioners don’t “understand the level of sophistication that is required to make the kinds of effective plans and policies that are needed to plan for this type of growth, so they dig in their heels and bicker about who has most power, and they go to court to find out.”
Mitchell said Whitefish’s “delay tactics” have been “holding county residents prisoners for years,” and cited the city’s attempt to glean input from county residents during its U.S. Highway 93 West corridor study as a failed effort to collaborate.
“After the joint committee concluded its work and presented it to the Whitefish council, the council ignored it and fashioned its own study. Our time spent on this effort was wasted,” according to Mitchell, who previously served on the Whitefish City Council and says he’s been on both sides of the issue.
Despite the embattled relationship, Muhlfeld said he’s trying to be positive about the future of the dynamic with county commissioners, particularly given what’s at stake.
“I personally remain optimistic and committed to resolve our differences and work toward an amicable relationship where we can have good civil discourse,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, we are all residents of Flathead County.”