Whitefish City Council Passes Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance

Opponents of the ordinance expressed concerns about its potential for unintended consequences, including transforming traditional neighborhoods into ‘investment properties’

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish City Hall. Beacon file photo

The Whitefish City Council on May 16 voted to pass the second reading of a new accessory dwelling unit ordinance that will ease restrictions and create incentives for renting the so-called “mother-in-law” units to local residents through long-term rental leases.

An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is a unit that shares a single lot with a primary residence but may be occupied by people who are not related to its owners. The ordinance was designed to create more affordable options in the city’s prohibitive rental market, and is intended specifically to benefit Whitefish’s workforce and its local residents.

Councilors Giuseppe Caltabiano, Steve Qunell, Ben Davis and Andy Feury all voted in support of the ordinance’s second reading. Councilor Frank Sweeney voted against the ordinance despite his earlier support. Although he did not cast a vote, Mayor John Muhlfeld expressed concerns of his own, saying the ordinance could have unintended negative consequences. Councilor Rebecca Norton was absent from the meeting.

The ordinance includes ADUs as a permitted use for some Whitefish zoning districts, including agricultural, country residential, suburban residential, estate residential, one-family limited residential, one-family residential, two-family residential, low density multi-family residential and high density multi-family residential.

ADUs under the ordinance would need to have a floor area smaller than 600 square feet, and the height of a detached ADU is limited to 26 feet and cannot exceed two stories. An off-street parking space also must be provided.

If the property owner chooses for a minimum of five years to place a deed restriction for a long-term lease to a local resident for at least 12 months, the ADU can have an additional 200 square feet of floor space. Under those circumstances, off-street parking requirements will also be waived, and the property owner could be eligible for other incentives, like impact fee reimbursements.

Concerned that the new ordinance would open the floodgates to investment-property owners, Sweeney proposed an amendment requiring anyone participating in the incentive program who chose to rent the primary residence associated with the ADU would need to do so for a minimum of 12 months. The amendment could not find a second. Later, Sweeney explained that he feels the ordinance needs more guardrails, without which he argued the city won’t reap the benefits of additional workforce housing and long-term housing. Sweeney’s vote against the ordinance was a reversal from his support at a council meeting earlier in May where he voted in favor of it.

“I think lifting the owner-occupancy requirement is going to drive a lot of our traditional neighborhoods to commercial out-of-state investment properties,” Muhlfeld said. “In my opinion it’s just going to drive housing prices up and do the opposite of what we’re trying to accomplish here at the demise of our traditional neighborhoods.”

Councilor Feury explained his support by vouching for the effort that city staff, the planning board and the council had poured into crafting the ordinance. He also said the city can adjust the ordinance if his fellow councilor’s concerns are borne out.

“I’m hoping through the incentive programs we’ve put in here we will get the kind of housing we want out of it,” Feury said. “And we’re going to get some that we don’t (want), I understand that. That’s true with everything.”

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