In what many perceived as a trial balloon to determine the feasibility of Whitefish’s newly minted inclusionary zoning policy on affordable housing projects, the city council denied a proposal to develop two apartment buildings in a residential neighborhood after a groundswell of public opposition.
Despite the project’s failure, council members said the community process that drove the debate and ultimately led to the development’s failure is testament to the duality of the program’s mission — to build out the city’s inventory of affordable housing while rooting out projects that aren’t compatible.
“This is not a black eye for the program; this is a positive thing for it,” Whitefish City Councilor Andy Feury said following the unanimous Jan. 21 vote in favor of a motion to deny the project.
The proposal to build 36 units on a lot between 7th and 8th streets on Whitefish’s east side is the first project reviewed through the city’s new Legacy Homes Program. Adopted in June, the new zoning rule says that residential developments that need a discretionary permit — such as a conditional-use permit or a planned-unit development — must include 20 percent of new housing units as permanently affordable through the Whitefish Housing Authority.
Called “inclusionary zoning,” the requirements are intended to assist working residents with moderate incomes. In Whitefish, a voluntary inclusionary zoning program has been on the books for years, but has produced very little housing.
In this case, the developer, Central Ave WF, was requesting a conditional-use permit to develop two 18-unit apartment buildings at 1013 E. 7th St. and 1022 E. 8th St. The site is developed with a single-family home that would have been removed as part of the project. The property is zoned WR-4 (High Density Multi-Family Residential District) and the Whitefish Growth Policy designates it as “High Density Residential.”
The request went before council without a recommendation from the Whitefish Planning Board, which considered the proposal at its Dec. 19 meeting but was unable to make a recommendation for or against the project. The Whitefish Planning Department recommended the project subject to conditions of approval.
On Jan. 6, the Whitefish City Council voted to delay a decision on the request after lengthy public testimony from residents who live near the proposed project, as well as the submission of dozens of letters raising concerns, most of them centered on traffic and safety in a residential area surrounded by schools and daycare facilities.
Dozens of residents turned out again for the Jan. 21 council meeting to oppose the project, with only the developer’s representative speaking in support.
Indeed, the developer’s representative, Aaron Wallace, an architect with Montana Creative, described adjustments to the proposal designed to assuage the community’s concerns, including removing a clubhouse and hot tub and altering the layout of the parking area.
But Wallace also said the seismic shifts taking place in Whitefish will inevitably impact the community and even come to bear on neighborhoods like the one in question, which is flanked by Whitefish High School, Muldown Elementary School, Whitefish Christian Academy, several preschools, and multiple assisted-living facilities — all of which contribute to traffic congestion that peaks during school hours.
“Everybody in this community has an affiliation with this neighborhood,” Wallace said. “My wife works at the school. I think I know and my kids know these sidewalks better than our own backyard woods. And while the neighbors have done a great job sharing it, this is a neighborhood that is going to change. Whether it’s 36 units or 46, this is going to shift to multi-family development. Change is going to occur, and it’s really a question of what sort of change you want to have.”
Neighbors to the proposed project all expressed support for the community-wide efforts to grow the city’s affordable housing inventory, but said the proposed project, which only includes seven units that would be deed-restricted as affordable housing, doesn’t do enough to offset the impacts to the neighborhood.
“If we were actually serious about making our community better, the whole project would have been affordable,” nearby resident Pete Seigmund said.
The affordable housing problem in Whitefish has grown to such a degree that city officials have termed it a crisis, prompting them to implement the Whitefish Strategic Housing Plan and appoint a steering committee to craft a plan.
According to a workforce housing needs assessment released in December 2016, middle-income residents have limited options when it comes to finding housing, a problem that is displacing locals and forcing them to live outside their chosen community — 56 percent of Whitefish’s workforce lives in neighboring communities, 34 percent of whom would prefer to live in Whitefish.
The assessment identified a need for 980 total housing units to accommodate employee households through 2020, or 580 rentals and 400 ownership units. The assessment noted that only 70 percent of Whitefish homes are occupied by locals, which marks a 10 percent decline from 2000.
Prior to their vote in support of a motion to deny the contentious project, made by newly elected Councilor Rebecca Norton, council members each explained the rationale behind their decision, emphasizing that it does not undermine their commitment to affordable workforce housing; rather, it underscores their commitment to the community.
“This is the first bite of the apple of inclusionary zoning. This is our first chance to really put our money where our mouth is with respect to affordable housing,” Steve Qunell, who was elected to the council in November, said. “I have been a big champion of affordable housing, as has this city. But this is where I think that council needs to take a leadership role and it is our job to say what is too dense in certain areas.”
Some community members and councilors took umbrage with the developer’s insinuation that if the proposal fails, development could proceed by right (without a conditional-use permit) with construction of 14 larger units that include garages. Meanwhile, other developers considering affordable-housing developments might be deterred by the project’s failure, interpreting it as a sign that affordability isn’t worth the effort.
But Feury said the process worked in this case, and encouraged developers to work with neighborhoods when crafting future proposals and do more outreach.
“Knock on doors next time,” Feury said.
“There have been comments made about how there should not be this much debate with the new inclusionary zoning ordinance,” Feury continued. “Interestingly enough there should be precisely this much debate and it’s the Legacy Homes. Program that allowed this debate to happen.”