The Whitefish Planning Board voted 3-1 Thursday night to deny a developer’s request for a Planned Unit Development that would set the stage for the construction of commercial properties and 318 residential units — of which about 10% would be affordable housing — at the bottom of Big Mountain Road.
The vote ran counter to the recommendation of city staff who compiled a 21-page report advising the planning board to recommend the development to city council, contingent on additional conditions being met.
Board chair and city council member Steve Qunell cast the only vote against the motion to deny Arim Mountain Gateway LLC’s request for the development, which would be located north of the intersection of East Lakeshore Drive and Big Mountain Road. Voting in support of the motion to deny were vice chair John Ellis and board members Whitney Beckham and Allison Linville. Scott Freudenberger and Toby Scott were absent. The board also voted along identical lines to deny a request for a zoning change related to the proposed development.
“It’s hard for me to vote no against this project because of the affordable housing,” Qunell said. “Are there problems, are there issues? Yes. Is our community already different from the community I moved to 20 years ago? Heck yes it is. I couldn’t move here today. I teach high school. I was fortunate that I moved here when I could save to buy a home. I couldn’t live here now and frankly I’m not sure if I’d want to. Because what’s happened? This place is only accessible to people from big cities out of state.”
While the board’s decision represents a blow to the project, it’s not the end of what has become an extensive debate in a town where housing is scarce and demand runs high.
Deliberation over the proposal will still be ongoing next year when the Whitefish City Council is slated to take up the development and zoning change request at a Jan. 18 meeting.
Among those who weighed in Thursday night were residents, property owners, business owners and attorneys, as well as representatives of the nonprofit Flathead Families for Responsible Growth, including a traffic engineer hired by the group. The nonprofit was formed to oppose the development.
Most of those who spoke during public comment were critical of the development, with many arguing that it would increase traffic problems and pose related safety risks. Some cited the danger increased traffic could pose during a wildfire evacuation. Others argued the proposed roundabout would be ineffective at alleviating gridlock congestion that can impede drivers attempting to turn out of residential streets.
The planning board’s meeting this week was an extension of a meeting last month that stretched to nearly five hours by a deluge of public comment. Public comment resumed Thursday night and continued for more than an hour before the four board members present eventually voted.
“I think that this is too much too fast,” board member Whitney Beckham said before voting in favor of the denial. “Every smaller development that we’ve had pop up along the Wisconsin Corridor has given the community and the planning board great pause because of the traffic, the emergency situations that could arise.”
Beckham said she does not believe the development serves the city’s growth policy, and she went on to point out that despite hearing that the Montana Department of Transportation will improve the corridor in the future, it hasn’t happened.
John Ellis, who also voted in support of the motion to deny the development and zoning request, began his remarks by also pointing a finger at the Montana Department of Transportation.
“With big projects like this, a lot of it is out of our control. And that’s what I feel like here, Wisconsin Avenue is out of our control,” he said. “We can’t be proactive in the city to make a plan and then carry out a plan because we’re stuck with MDoT.”
Referencing a description from former Whitefish Mayor Mike Jenson, Ellis said he agreed Wisconsin Avenue is “the largest cul-de-sac in Montana” and described the rapid pace of development he’s seen on Big Mountain. Ellis also expressed concerns about the effect the development could have on wildlife.
“The two biggest problems we have in Whitefish are the cost of housing and the traffic. The cost of housing, you know, until some other place is being picked out in all the magazines, is gonna continue because many people want to come here. The traffic, we can’t seem to control. So, should we put a development the size of what has been proposed in this PUD at the location where the developers propose it to be placed, I can only answer ‘No,’ because it will just make a nightmare 10 times worse,” Ellis said.
He then zeroed in on the project’s proposal to include 20,000 square feet of commercial space as “the thing that concerns me the most.”
“I think it’s inappropriate to put any commercial space there, because that will just add to the traffic,” Ellis said. “If you got rid of the commercial and you could convince me the traffic could be handled then I could feel more friendly to this.”
Board member Allison Linville said her vote was being guided by “the issue of the evacuation and the traffic involved.”
She referenced remarks made toward the beginning of the public comment period by Richard Hildner, a Whitefish resident with decades of experience in wildland firefighting, as well as a board member of Flathead Families for Responsible Growth. Hildner painted a grim portrait of both the likelihood of a wildfire in the area and the high risk it would pose to residents with only one way in and one way out.
“I think as a community there’s no reason why we haven’t had a fire close enough to town to be really, really afraid of that,” Linville said. “I think throughout this public comment process that’s something that has come up, and it’s something that as a community we have talked about. The reality of that has not approached us yet and that’s something that we’re incredibly lucky for.”
For Qunell, the development proposal and public response seemed to be part of an upsetting pattern in recent years.
“This project is now the third one we’ve seen in the last three years where the developer is offering us affordable housing, and immediately people come out and say ‘You can’t do it here,’” Qunell said. “So my question to everyone in this community is ‘Do we really value affordable housing for our workforce or do we not?’”
He argued that the commercial aspects of the development, which were criticized by Ellis, were actually designed to reduce the amount of traffic by putting things like a grocery store in close proximity to the residential units. Qunell conceded that traffic along Wisconsin is already “unbearable” especially on a powder day, or in the summertime, and also said that he would rather see 20% of the units be designated for affordable housing.
Despite those drawbacks, Qunell framed the issue as one which raises questions about the spirit of the community, and referenced the amount of affordable housing development in Whitefish near the sewer treatment plant, and how the growth policy values interspersing affordable housing with regular housing.
Qunell also vouched for lead developer James Barnett, saying he cares about the community and isn’t “some slick developer coming in from out of state to sell us a bill of goods with a Trojan Horse of affordable housing so he can make a ton of money.”
At one point the board had a chance to ask Barnett questions about the proposal. Beckham asked if he had any fallback plan should the PUD be denied. “I don’t have some plan to build 581 homes or something. We’ve put all of our efforts into this,” Barnett said. “I think we all know it’s valuable land, it’s desirable location. There’s probably lots of different things people would love to do there. But I kind of feel like this, just because of my personal beliefs, that something that has a lot of rental component is something I’d like to see there.”
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