County Hears Comment on South Whitefish Overlay, Zone Changes

Most shifts in zoning would change agricultural and residential properties south of town into business designations

By Molly Priddy

The Flathead County Commission heard public comment on proposed changes to the zoning and business classifications of the land directly south of the city’s entrance.

After receiving comments during a hearing on proposals for the South Whitefish Overlay and text amendments to the Flathead County Zoning Regulations, the commission voted to take the comments under consideration and continue the hearing at a later date.

A citizen-initiated proposal, the South Whitefish Overlay would include land extending about 1.5 miles south of Whitefish on U.S. Highway 93. The overlay, covering about 490 acres, would have designations and rules for landscaping, buffering, signage, lighting, building design, and parking, similar to the standards used by the City of Whitefish. The overlay would include 1.5 miles south of city limits and a quarter mile east and west of the highway’s right-of-way.

The text-amendment proposal includes changing zoning designations within the overlay, shifting many away from agricultural and residential zones to business-friendly areas: 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.

Since the two proposals are separate, both had public comment hearings scheduled in front of the commission on Aug. 17. About a dozen people spoke, many expressing the challenges of living on land that has been the focus of a decade of administrative wrangling between the city and the county, from the doughnut controversy to trying to figure out now what the land’s future will be.

Some people, such as Kevin and Catlin Kaltschmidt, were worried the business designations could hurt their adjoining property values in the Emerald Heights subdivision, and that a nearby proposed B2-A zone would allow for uses like a gas station.

“Where my husband and I live, we have very little buffering,” Catlin Kaltschmidt said. “If (the nearby) property were (BSD), that would protect our neighborhood.”

Multiple businesses pepper the side of the highway leading into town, including but not limited to a coffee shop and offices, a veterinarian clinic, a fly-fishing shop, mini storage, a bed and breakfast, an auto-body shop, and a plastic surgery clinic. In order to exist, they operate under conditional-use permits.

Mayre Flowers, director at Citizens for a Better Flathead, said her organization appreciated the intent behind the overlay and zone changes, but that more thinking needs to go into the process.

Matching the zones between what already exists within the nearby city boundary and what could exist with the proposed changes isn’t conducive to the property, she said, because the overlay and new zones wouldn’t be on city services.

Flowers also said the proposals rely on setbacks, which are appropriate standards in municipal settings but not necessarily rural ones. Instead of this individual solution for this particular area of a highway corridor, Flowers suggested tabling the measure and having the three cities within the county work together to plan all the corridors.

Following public comment, Commissioner Gary Krueger asked Dave DeGrandpre, the consulting land-use planner putting the plans together for the citizens who initiated these processes, to further plan out road accesses to the highway for future businesses near the overlay’s southern boundary.

The initial proposals for the zone changes came about in January, when the planning board held a public hearing on the matter. After public comment at the Jan. 11 hearing, the board decided to workshop the proposals and get additional public comment. The board also asked for an amended plan, which it discussed at a March 8 workshop, and received a staff report on the amended plan to reflect the changes between the documents for the May 10 meeting.

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