Debate Over Whitefish Development to Extend into February

The controversial Arim Mountain Gateway Development in Whitefish was the primary focus of a recent city council meeting in Whitefish

By Mike Kordenbrock
The intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive in Whitefish on Oct. 15, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The debate over the Arim Mountain Gateway Development in Whitefish will continue next month after a lengthy city council session on Jan. 18 that featured an unwieldy queue of opponents urging the city to deny the proposal and ended with the decision to extend public comment until Feb. 7.

The public comment period ran for several hours at a council meeting that centered on whether or not to approve a residential and commercial development proposal at the bottom of Big Mountain Road. In addition to the live testimony, which included impassioned pleas for denial, Mayor John Muhfeld noted that the council had received 800 written public comments.

The developers of the project have asked for approval of a planned unit development and conditional zoning change connected to the project, which would bring 318 new residential units to Whitefish in the form of 270 apartments, 36 townhouses and 12 condominiums in a location at the bottom of Big Mountain Road north of its intersection with East Lakeshore Drive.

Part of the property would also be set aside for a future fire station, and the developers would create a bike path on the west side of Big Mountain Road. A portion of the property could also see some commercial development. James Barnett, the lead developer on the project, told the council that the land gifts included in the project have an estimated value of $7 million.

Debate around the development proposal began last November when the Whitefish Planning Board voted to deny Barnett’s request by a margin of 3-1, with the three board members echoing some of the public concerns about traffic and fire risk. City staff has recommended approval of the request; however, the planning board’s deliberations over the project also included extensive public comment, with much of it in opposition.

The developer has made some changes to the site plan and application since the planning board meeting. Some of the changes involved fixing typos, while others are more substantive, including changing the units on the east side of Big Mountain Road from townhouses to condominiums.

One change requires the developer donate a portion of the property to a nonprofit organization to develop 36 town homes and 12 condominiums for a total of 48 affordable housing units. The project also includes a proposal for 32 deed-restricted affordable rentals for people earning between 60% to 80% of the area’s median income.

When asked by Council Steve Qunell how they can afford to give away this much, Barnett said tax deductions made it doable, but that it still will affect the project’s bottom line.

Barnett was given a chance to present to the council at the start of the public comment period. He spent some of the time reviewing his experience as a firefighter and incident commander and trying to allay fire and emergency response concerns, while also noting that, with or without the project, traffic conditions will continue to deteriorate along Wisconsin Avenue. Barnett argued that the development request is a pivotal decision for the city.

“I’ll make a prediction. If we don’t complete the project in the next five to 10 years, traffic will continue to be a problem, Whitefish will get more popular as the ski area expands and advertising continues. There will be more multimillion dollar homes and condos built in the area, more hotels, more tourists,” Barnett said. “But we won’t have any of the community benefits you could have had on this piece of land, no fire station, no traffic improvements, no bus stops, no affordable housing. We’re offering solutions. I haven’t heard much more of that. At this point there’s nothing more we can do or give, this is all there is.

Whitefish Fire Chief Joe Page also discussed some of the fire concerns brought up during discussions of the development. Page noted that there is already a need for a fire station. When asked by Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano, Page said that he was not planning on including a fire station in his budget this year but that it will be a major topic of discussion with a recently formed upcoming strategic planning committee. Page added that he estimates the land would be about 50% of the cost for the station.

Page echoed in part the contents of a letter he sent to city staff in December with his assessment of the risk.

The letter begins with Page stating, “while I agree it’s not a question of if, but when we’ll see a wildland fire threatening Big Mountain, I’m not sure this proposed development would increase the risk as much as being portrayed by some.”

Page also mentioned other evacuation routes from the north side of the tracks aside from the viaduct, including up and around the lake toward Olney. In the letter he notes that structures would have to be built in accordance with the Wildland Urban Interface Code, to help guard against ember showers which typically lead to structure loss.

“Like everyone I’m experiencing more traffic in and around town. Probably the only benefit of more traffic besides customers for our business is it means more eyes able to spot small fires and notify us sooner,” Page wrote in the letter.

The letter concludes with Page stating that, “All the development in town is adding to the stress on our staffing and infrastructure and I’m not convinced one part of town is markedly better or worse than another from the fire department’s standpoint.”

Many of those who spoke in opposition of the project echoed concerns brought up at previous meetings, including the issue of traffic as it relates to fire evacuations, medical emergencies and quality of life. Those who spoke included residents, as well as attorneys, and a traffic engineer hired by the nonprofit Flathead Families for Responsible Growth, which has organized opposition against the project.

Towards the end of the meeting Kent Taylor, the owner of Hidden Moose Lodge who served on the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Committee, spoke with frustration about the traffic and lack of progress on improving road conditions. At one point Taylor said he was embarrassed and ashamed that the council hadn’t contacted the state, prompting Muhlfeld to interject that the city had in fact contacted the Montana Department of Transportation. 

With his frustration mounting, Taylor ended his comments saying that the sentiment in opposition was overwhelming but that he has sympathy for the developers. “Put it somewhere else,” Taylor said. “This can’t continue. It’s unbelievable…And I’d like to say if you do approve it give them the condition that this guy has to live there for the next three years, and all the council members that vote in favor of it, you do too. Good luck with that.”