Development

Mountain Gateway Development Project Confronts Whitefish’s Growing Pains

Residents and project leader James Barnett met to discuss development plans and impact on Wisconsin corridor traffic

By Skye Lucas
The site of the proposed “Mountain Gateway" development at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive in Whitefish on Oct. 15, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Oct. 14 Mountain Gateway Development held a public forum to discuss the proposed 318 housing units and neighboring retail market at the bottom of Big Mountain Road.

More than 40 Whitefish residents were in attendance to listen to James Barnett, the lead developer of the big housing project. At the start of the meeting Barnett, who stood alone before the crowd, asked the attendees if he should wait any longer before presenting the project.

“Traffic’s too bad probably,” someone responded, teasing the sensitive topic at issue: the development, and its proximity to congested Wisconsin Avenue.

The sought after 30.51-acre property straddles the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lake Shore Drive and is currently designated with a mix of three zoning districts: WR-2, WR-3 and County R-4. The property as is permits an overall allowable density of up to 374 units.

Arim Mountain Gateway (AMG) intends to develop the property into a multi-unit community and submitted a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application to Whitefish City Council on Sept. 16. In the application, AMG requests to mix the three current zoning districts so as to accommodate the long-term rental community’s layout.

The rental community would comprise of a total of 270 units west of Big Mountain Road and of those 32 would be affordable/deed restricted units. On the eastern side developers intend to create 24 for-sale condo units and 24 for-sale town home lots, and a small neighborhood convenience-commercial island.

The property’s current three zoning districts resemble a cookie cutter layout; however, creating this blended-zoning condition would limit the building footprint and preserve existing trees.

According to Barnett, the development aims to address the “missing middle.” Deed restricted housing will be set aside for individuals who make 60% to 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI) and townhomes and condos are the least expensive type of homeownership for that area.

“In the Whitefish 2007 Growth Policy, it says we need a place for teachers, police officers, firefighters, sales and servers — the people we depend on,” Barnett said. “I can prioritize rent for those who work in Whitefish, because we (AMG) manage our own rental communities.”

While the development will address immediate housing needs, more units will result in more traffic on an already high-trafficked road.

Schematic site layout for the proposed Mountain Gateway PUD at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive in Whitefish. Courtesy image

To compensate for this increase in density and limit its traffic impact, the project provides additional measures that correspond with the 2018 Wisconsin Corridor Plan’s “community needs.”

On page 4-9 of the Corridor Plan, Big Mountain Road is designated as a key development area. A satellite fire station, a retail space and traffic intervention at the Big Mountain Road intersection are all outlined in the plan, which also guided Barnett in outlining the application.

A separate Zone Map Amendment was submitted for the commercial zoning on the east side of Big Mountain Road. If approved, the incorporation of a market could reduce the number of trips required on Wisconsin from both the development and the greater area residents.

To allow for a more distributed flow of traffic down the Wisconsin corridor, AMG has also identified the installation of a roundabout to create better, safer traffic flow at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive. The high traffic corridor currently functions at a level of service graded “C” with restricted flow.

Barnett, along with realtor Will McDonald and engineer Mike Brodie, organized a Traffic Impact Study to identify existing issues and potential impacts from the development.

According to the findings, the intersection will become a level of service “F,” where traffic approaching the point exceeds the amount that can be served, by the year 2025, even under a no-build scenario.

A roundabout improves the existing intersection from a level of service F to a level of service B, which is stable traffic flow, Brodie said.

The roundabout was not popular with those in attendance; the primary concern being that a roundabout would not be able to handle the volume of traffic currently seen at the intersection.

“I can’t believe that anyone who lives on Houston Drive will ever be able to get out of their street with a roundabout,” one attendee said. “A traffic light might be better than doing this roundabout. To me, you guys haven’t done your homework.”

Other attendees raised similar concerns.

“It seems this project is well thought out. The traffic, however, is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” another attendee said.

The Wisconsin Avenue corridor is the main road that moves traffic between Whitefish Mountain Resort and downtown Whitefish. The avenue is a state route and, according to Brodie, no improvements have been planned or are scheduled by the Montana Department of Transportation.

Other attendees questioned the developers about possible light pollution and tree retention. One woman asked how the project would be sensitive to the nearby elk population.

“I understand the development will allow the preservation of an existing population of whitetail deer and turkeys through tree retention, but I just don’t see anything in the application about elk,” the attendee said.

Opposition to the project was not limited to the room. An online petition titled, “Oppose Proposed Development at Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive in Whitefish” had received over 3,500 signatures as of Oct. 15.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation online,” Barnett said to the group. “I have no problem with people opposing the project. But I do feel like you should have the right information and I don’t know that I’ve read a single public comment submitted online that has all of the correct information.”

The Whitefish Planning Board will meet at 6 p.m. on Oct. 21 at City Hall, 418 E. Second St. to discuss the application, renderings and other documents related to the Mountain Gateway project, which can be found at cityofwhitefish.org/428/current-land-use-actions.

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