Fresh Life Church’s Downtown Whitefish Proposal Slated for Planning Board Hearing

City staff recommends approval of conditional-use permit while acknowledging overwhelming objections from public

By Tristan Scott
Preliminary design of the Fresh Life Church building in downtown Whitefish. Courtesy rendering

A request by Fresh Life Church to develop a new location in the heart of Whitefish’s downtown corridor is headed for the planning board this week, with city staff recommending approval of a conditional-use permit despite overwhelming opposition to the project from members of the public.

The Whitefish Planning Board on Jan. 18 is slated to consider Fresh Life’s request to build a 10,810-square-foot building that would include space for a church below ground level, per city zoning requirements, as well as retail and office space above ground.

A staff report from the Whitefish Planning Department released Jan. 12 highlights elements of the proposed project that do not align with the city’s growth policy or its downtown master plan, but ultimately recommends approval because many of those discrepancies can be or already have been mitigated with design changes.

Still, the 15-page report details a groundswell of public backlash to the proposed project, with the majority of commenters looking askance at a new church they say runs counter to Whitefish’s downtown character. The report includes copies of 63 public comments submitted in writing, all of them opposed to the project.

“There is significant community concern about how this proposed structure and use would fit in with the community character,” the report states. “Many of the comments received from the public expressed the opinion that this use is out of character and the wrong or an inappropriate type of development for downtown and for Central Avenue. A location out of downtown is believed to be more appropriate for this type of use.”

The concerns include: loss of revenue due to the tax-exempt status of the church; increased traffic congestion and insufficient parking; a public perception of the church’s poor track record of developments in downtown Kalispell; the displacement of small businesses and alienation of people who are not members of the congregation; a dearth of benefits to the city of Whitefish and its residents.

The lion’s share of the comments asserts that Whitefish’s downtown corridor is the wrong location for another church, and that another location outside of downtown is more appropriate.

The proposed location shares a block with the historic First Presbyterian Church, which was built prior to current zoning regulations. As proposed, the new church would span three lots at 334 Central Ave., including the former location of Lakestream Fly Shop, which operated there for years before moving to its current spot on Spokane Avenue.

According to its application, Fresh Life Church bills the proposed project as a “better use of three city lots with infill style construction.” Fresh Life is currently in the midst of a similar infill project in downtown Kalispell, where construction is underway on a two-story building between a pair of historic buildings it owns on First Avenue East.

Since its establishment in Kalispell in 2007, Fresh Life Church has grown significantly in size and scope. The church, led by pastor Levi Lusko, who moved to the Flathead Valley from California and formed the church at 25, has acquired multiple properties in downtown and expanded to cities across Montana. Within only a few years, the church drew a regular local congregation of roughly 1,500 people.

As the congregation has continued to grow, so has Fresh Life’s real estate portfolio. The church moved its original headquarters from above the Overflowing Cup coffee bistro on Kalispell’s Main Street into the Strand Theatre on Second Street East in 2007. The church purchased the theater in 2010 and that same year also bought the nearby Liberty Theatre and former First Avenue Café building next door to the Montana Building. The church also now leases space in the Montana Building.

There are two reasons Fresh Life must obtain a conditional-use permit from the city of Whitefish in order to build a new church — the proposed size exceeds the 7,500-square-foot building threshold defined in WB-3 zoning regulations that steer development in Whitefish’s Old Town Central District; and churches in that district cannot operate at ground level under current zoning requirements.

In order to comply with current zoning as well as the character of Whitefish’s downtown core, Fresh Life has proposed a split-level building with one floor situated below ground level and one above, according to Hilary Lindh, long-range planner with the Whitefish Planning Board and the author of the planning report. The application also proposes five retail spaces.

The general business district does not include parking requirements, and the application states parking demand would increase significantly during its Sunday services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. The church estimates it will draw a congregation of about 150 people. Its Whitefish congregation currently gathers at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.

Additionally, the building will accommodate a staff of between two and four employees during business hours Monday through Thursday, as well as part of the day Saturday, according to the application.

There are also no setback requirements in the general business district, and Lindh said architectural drawings show the ground-level retail spaces would abut the sidewalk, with no landscaping or screening. The building’s proposed dimensions would be 125 feet deep and 90 feet wide, including the 60-by-80-foot area designated for retail space.

The planning board will make a recommendation to the Whitefish City Council, which will hold a public hearing and take final action on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 7:10 p.m.