County to Move on South Whitefish Overlay

Commission schedules final decision for planning future of U.S. 93 south corridor entering Whitefish

By Molly Priddy
U.S. Highway 93 south of Whitefish. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Commission has scheduled a final decision on the South Whitefish Overlay and zone changes for Oct. 18.

Originally scheduled to vote on the overlay and accompanying zone changes this week, the commission took its time working through more than 20 findings of fact on the proposed adjustments to the U.S. Highway 93 corridor to the south of Whitefish.

The South Whitefish Overlay is a citizen-initiated proposal that would include land extending about 1.5 miles south of Whitefish on Highway 93, including about a quarter mile east and west of the highway’s right-of-way.

As an overlay, it would cover about 490 acres and set standards for landscaping, buffering, signage, lighting, building design, and parking, similar to those used in the City of Whitefish.

The proposed zone changes would be text amendments to the Flathead County Zoning Regulations, adjusting away from agricultural and residential zones to more business-friendly zones: 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.

The overlay and text amendments cap off the county’s transition back into planning control of the area surrounding Whitefish’s city limits, often referred to as the donut. The land has been the focus of more than a decade of administrative battles between the county and city, and was finally put in county control after a 2014 state Supreme Court decision.

Whitefish supported the creation of the overlay, though the city opposed the zone changes, and noted that there are no plans to extend city water and sewer services south of Highway 40.

Every area of the donut has been reformatted to county standards except this south access corridor, which Commissioner Phil Mitchell pointed out was against Whitefish’s own growth policy.

Mitchell noted that the city’s 2007 growth policy listed the Highway 93 South corridor as its first priority. The city could have done something about the area when it had control of the donut, but it didn’t.

“Whitefish has not done that,” Mitchell, who was on the Whitefish City Council from 2010 to 2013. “Whitefish needs to follow their growth policy.”

Mitchell also called the area the “bastard child” area of Whitefish for the lack of attention paid to it.

Commissioner Gary Krueger said most people are fine with the plan, and that the county would be smart to make these changes en masse instead of one parcel at a time.

“That creates haphazard administration,” Krueger said. “This keeps one set of standards for all.”

Commissioner Pam Holmquist said she believed this particular corridor, with the recent study and all the donut legal wrangling, has had “more public comment and consideration” than any property she could imagine.

The commission directed Flathead County Planning Director Mark Mussman to adjust several of the findings of fact for a vote on Oct. 18. The time for the meeting was not set by the time the Beacon went to print.

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