Potential Wisconsin Avenue Resort Sparks Concern

Whitefish residents begin weighing in on city’s framework for growth in corridor north of downtown

By Tristan Scott
Whitefish Lake, seen from the air during an EcoFlight tour on June 27, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Initial plans for an upscale resort lodge, conference center and marina on Whitefish Lake near the intersection of Big Mountain Road have emerged as a sticking point for local residents as public comments continue trickling in on the city’s Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Plan.

The comments are underway after nine months of committee work to inform the corridor plan’s first draft, which city officials unveiled Aug. 23.

The plan is a collaborative effort to build a framework for commercial growth in the corridor running along Wisconsin Avenue, linking Whitefish’s downtown center to Whitefish Lake and Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain.

Designed to help city officials make future decisions for the area over the next 10 to 20 years, the plan takes into account market forces, city infrastructure investment, environmental protections, and community character.

Dave Taylor, Whitefish’s planning director, said the plan’s unveiling was met with concerns from some residents about a potential lodge development on the lakeshore near the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive.

No official plans for development have been filed with the city by landowner Joe Gregory, Taylor said, and at this point the draft corridor plan hasn’t changed the zoning in question to allow for commercial or resort development.

Taylor said that working with Gregory while crafting the corridor plan allows for the city to potentially add infrastructure, such as a roundabout at the intersection or a fire department on nearby land.

According to Gregory, he chose to be involved in the corridor study because he saw an “opportunity to gain insight and ideas for what the community felt would be a benefit.”

“One of my main desires has been to bring something of value to the community of Whitefish through these beautiful properties I’m privileged to own,” according to Gregory’s written public comment to city officials. “Having multiple properties under single ownership provides forward-looking opportunities for the community that aren’t present with the development of individual parcels in a piecemeal fashion.”

The parcel that Gregory has suggested building the resort lodge on includes 700 feet of lake frontage, while a “member village” consisting of residential properties would be located on his property across the street, which could also facilitate ancillary or administrative buildings, replacing some of the distressed or dilapidated structures currently located there.

“The lodge I propose developing would be something unlike anything we have in the area,” Gregory said. “This lodge would contribute to the local economy throughout the shoulder seasons with continuing education conferences and company meetings. This type of activity has the potential to be enough of a draw to lead to other economic benefits to the community, such as increasing current air traffic during the shoulder season months and adding new air traffic routes from key cities.”

But the incipient plans met pushback from local residents concerned that zoning changes could negatively impact the quality of life and devalue properties.

“Please count our voices as being strongly opposed to this hotel and marina development that will change and arguably ruin the quiet and low-density neighborhood,” according to comments from year-round resident Blaine Wright. “We also believe our home investment will be substantially diminished.”

Charles Abell, who grew up in a rustic cabin his parents built during their honeymoon on Whitefish Lake and later purchased another waterfront home nearby, implored city officials “do not make Wisconsin Avenue a commercial strip.”

Meanwhile, the proposed development received support from Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves, who said Gregory’s vision for the properties would be a complement to the ski resort and the nearby Lodge at Whitefish Lake while adding waterfront access to guests and visitors.

“I encourage the planning board to take advantage of a property owner wanting to do the ‘right thing’ with a planned resort complex around this intersection,” Graves stated in his public comment. “It would be great to remove the older, blighted buildings and possibly get a new traffic roadway/intersection.”

The corridor plan is not yet finalized and could still undergo changes. The next committee meeting about the corridor plan is Sept. 21, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Whitefish City Hall. The committee is expected to discuss the plan and make a recommendation regarding approval. If it passes muster, it will move on to the Whitefish Planning Board, and from there, to the City Council for final approval.

For a full copy of the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Plan, visit www.cityofwhitefish.org/planning-and-building/long-range-plans.php.

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