Whitefish City Council Votes Against Mountain Gateway Development

The 5-1 vote came after nearly three hours of public comment at a Monday night meeting

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

After nearly three hours of public comment Monday night on a proposed development at the base of Big Mountain Road, the Whitefish City Council voted by a 5-1 margin to reject the planned unit development and a related conditional zoning request.

The lone vote in favor of the Arim Mountain Gateway Development was Councilor Steve Qunell, who was also the sole member of the city’s planning board to vote in support of the development in November.

The council’s vote in an immediate sense means development of the land is further delayed, but still possible.

Located north of the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive, the development would have led to the construction of 318 units of new housing (270 rental apartments, 36 townhouses and 12 condominiums) on 32.7 acres of land, including 32 deed-restricted units for people earning between 60% and 80% of the area’s median income.

The development would also have set aside land for a nonprofit to develop into affordable housing. Additionally, the developer had offered up a tract of land for a fire station that Whitefish Fire Department Chief Joe Page has said is needed, but is not currently in the city’s budget to construct. As part of the proposed project, a roundabout would also have been installed at the intersection of East Lakeshore Drive and Big Mountain Road, while lead developer James Barnett proposed a commercial development in the neighborhood he said would reduce the volume of cross-town trips for groceries, gas and other errands.

At a Jan. 18 city council meeting, which drew such a high volume of public comment that city leaders opted to continue the hearing to last night, Barnett said there was nothing more that could be added on the developer’s end to increase the public benefit of the project.

“This project seems to be the scapegoat for everything, even for conditions that have existed for some time,” Barnett said Monday night. He went on to reiterate his claim that the cumulative benefits from the developer’s offer to the city would amount to $8.5 million. He also argued that only a limited segment of the community had weighed in on the issue.

“The types of people that would live here aren’t the kind that can hire lawyers to come and speak,” Barnett said. “It’s always the poor and working class that suffer in these debates.”

Opponents of the project have cited concerns about traffic issues they believe the development will exacerbate, which they say will affect quality of life and further endanger citizens in the event of a wildfire or health emergency, with some saying they agree Whitefish needs housing but that it should be built elsewhere. Opponents have also said the development would be out of character with surrounding neighborhoods and would negatively affect wildlife.

In recent weeks, some opponents have also threatened to cease making charitable donations in the community, with billionaire business owner Mark Jones going so far as to email city council about his disapproval of the development and intention to withhold future financial support for affordable housing, which he said he supports, but not at this location.

Jones’ stance drew the ire of Ryan Hennen, a former councilor whose term recently ended after he decided not to file for re-election. Hennen spoke at the start of the meeting during public comment.

“I’m not here to talk about the Big Mountain Development even though I think it should pass. I’m here because of the amount of people that have shared with me their disgust with the comments made by our own resident billionaire Mark Jones,” Hennen said. He continued, saying that with his son due to be born any day, he plans on using Jones’ statements as a cautionary tale. 

“A lesson to be learned,” Hennen said. “If you don’t get your way that’s okay. You live and learn. You don’t take your ball and go home, you don’t attempt to hold this small community hostage financially.” 

As part of the effort to stifle the passage of the development opponents have also formed a nonprofit and hired attorneys and a traffic engineer, and filed a zoning protest after collecting signatures from more than 25% of adjacent landowners within 150 feet of the proposed site. The protest triggered a requirement that the zoning variance required a 2/3 majority vote from the council.

At the conclusion of public comment, Qunell tried to bring forward a motion to approve the development, but was unable to get a second councilor to support bringing the motion forward for a vote. Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano then brought forward a motion to deny the request, which was seconded by Councilor Rebecca Norton.

Caltabiano ultimately said that he would be basing his vote on the recommendation of the planning board, which denied the request last November.

Norton said there was a lot she liked about the project, and would have liked to have approved it to increase the city’s housing inventory, but the opposition was an issue for her. The councilor said she hoped the developer would come back with some changes to the configuration.

“The bottom line is if we see overwhelming public opposition, I usually will do the will of the people that I represent and I’m hopeful that it won’t mean that we never get any more housing,” Norton said.

After some discussion, Councilor Frank Sweeney brought forward an amendment to the motion, which revised several of the city staff’s findings of fact about the project, including that it would provide adequate community benefits. City staff had previously compiled a 21-page report recommending approval of the PUD and zoning change request.

Councilors voted 5-1 in favor of the amendment, with Qunell casting the only vote against. Before the final vote, Qunell and other councilors further explained their positions.

“With respect to the findings of fact, we are summarily disregarding what our own staff has said, and taking the word for it from a group that was designed solely to oppose this project based on their analysis based on the people they paid to analyze this. I don’t think that does our community a great service,” Qunell said, adding later that, “What we’re about to do is send a message that Whitefish is closed to the working class.”

Qunell later read an email he had received from the homeless housing coordinator for Kalispell Public Schools, where he works as a teacher. The email was asking for help finding rentals or alternatives for families in the school district that could wind up on the street because of looming evictions at the Fairbridge Inn and Outlaw Convention Center in Kalispell.

“The problem is real. I deal with it on the frontlines every day of the week. Some of these kids are in my classroom. Some of these kids are in classrooms here in Whitefish,” Qunell said.

Councilor Ben Davis said he had issues with the location and the scope of the development, which he characterized as the largest in the community’s history. “The town just does not seem like it’s designed for this size and scale of a development in this location,” Davis said.

Councilor Andy Feury prefaced his vote by saying he agreed with Qunell on many counts but said “I can’t myopically sit here with the blinders on and see only housing. I can’t not see all of the other challenges this piece of property has for this kind of development.”

Barnett said Tuesday afternoon that he was disappointed in the city’s decision but not surprised. He remains committed to developing the property, but said he does not have a “Plan B” or “Plan C” on hand. For the time being, he said he’ll be taking a week to let his emotions settle, take a deep breath, and give it some thought.

“We really believed in this and thought it was kind of the best project you could have at this site,” he said.