Whitefish Begins Growth Policy Update with Packed Public Meeting

The policy is intended to be a blueprint for the city looking 20 years ahead, at which point more than 11,000 people could be permanent residents

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish on June 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last week, a standing room only crowd packed into the Whitefish City Council chambers for a meeting kicking off the city’s rewrite of its growth policy.

A document that historically has been intended to guide city staff and elected officials in their decision-making when it comes to development and infrastructure needs, the city hasn’t comprehensively updated its growth policy since 2007, although updates have been made on a limited basis in the ensuing 16 years since. The Aug. 24 meeting, billed as a Growth Policy Kickoff Meeting, was meant to introduce people to the process, set the stage for what’s to come, and give people a chance to ask questions from city officials.

In order to contextualize just how much time had passed since that last comprehensive update of the growth policy, Whitefish City Planner Alan Tiefenbach incorporated a slide early into his presentation with some facts about 2007, including that it was a year in which George W. Bush was president, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president, the housing bubble was sending the U.S. into an economic recession, and Apple released the first iPhone.

There were, however, even more facts from 2007 in Tiefenbach’s presentation, which taken in the context of Whitefish’s current housing crisis, underscore just how dramatically the housing situation in the city has changed.

In one slide Tiefebach presented a chart showing information about life in Whitefish in 2007, and life in Whitefish in 2023 or 2022, depending on what data was available. Back then, the city’s area encompassed 4,115 acres. Now, it covers 8,022 acres. The population has increased by more than 2,000 people, to 8,915, and the median home price has gone from $319,000 to $1.3 million. Further, the estimated number of housing units went from 2,652, to about 5,500, with the median rent in Whitefish going from $477 to over $2,000.

All of that change happened in the span of about 16 years. The new growth policy, when it’s completed, will look to anticipate changes and needs in the city over the next 20 years, or up to 2045. As Tiefenbach explained in his presentation, a growth policy is an official document adopted and used by Montana cities, towns and counties as a guide for making decisions about its future, including land use.

And change is expected to continue in Whitefish. Tiefenbach said that the city has historically had about 2% population growth annually, but that he had gone to the Montana Census and Economic Information Center for a projection, which shows the city’s estimated population to be 11,423 by 2045, something Tiefenbach said was a more conservative growth estimate. That projection doesn’t assume sustained 2% growth, but instead takes into account a slowing growth curve due to cost and availability of land, and cost of services.

“When I say 11,500, that’s permanent residents. All of you know there’s a whole lot more than that at any given time in Whitefish, between people that aren’t full-time residents and the visitor economy,” Tiefenbach said.

The recent meeting was just one in a number of meetings expected to come as Whitefish officials discuss different components of the policy and solicit feedback from members of the public over a multi-year period. Growth policies need to be reviewed or updated in Montana every five years as necessary, and the upcoming more extensive rewrite has been identified as a priority by the Whitefish City Council. Also factoring into the growth policy process in Whitefish is a law passed during the most recent legislative session, which affected cities have three years to be in compliance with.

Called Senate Bill 382, or the Montana Land Use Planning Act, the law requires a growth policy for any city of over 5,000 people in a county of over 70,000 people. SB 382, which was sponsored by Columbus Republican Sen. Forest Mandeville and signed into law in May, is a 53-page law, which is expected to significantly change how developments are approved, including in Whitefish. Tiefenbach emphasized that under the new law, local government is to emphasize public participation and comment during the creation or updating of its growth policy. The law further stipulates that once growth policy or regulations are adopted, review of site-specific developments are to occur at the city staff level.

  “The Montana state statute said, in May, that there aren’t going to be public meetings anymore for site-specific developments. So, going to planning commission meetings about an apartment complex, or going to a planning commission meeting about some other site-specific development, the Montana state statute says you don’t get to do that anymore,” Tiefenbach said. “What you have to do is you have to get the public involved with the growth policy, you have to then write your zoning regulations and your subdivision regulations with the public, and when all these are done, if somebody comes in to build and that meets what the zoning and the growth policy is, you have to look at that and either approve it or deny it at the staff level. There is no public meeting.”

The new law allows public comment over a 15-day period if the planning administrator identifies new or significantly increased impacts that were not addressed during the creation of the growth policy or regulatory documents, according to Tiefenbach’s presentation.

The new law does include an appeals process for development approvals, but Tiefenbach characterized the criteria for an appeal as “narrow,” and said that someone can’t simply appeal a decision because they don’t like a project. Applicants can also submit an appeal.

“It basically says that if there was an error in judgment, if the planning administrator made an error in something, that can be appealed,” Tiefenbach said.

That appeal would begin with the planning administrator and then potentially go to the city council or to court.

“But the bottom line is that public hearings on specific projects in the state of Montana has been taken away from us. They said no more. That’s what the bottom line is here. The ‘why’ is not a political debate that I’m going to get into,” Tiefenbach said.

He later added that the change is “a big deal.”

“What this says is that we have to be involved with the growth policy and the zoning code now because once that’s done there’s a much more narrow authority on what the public can actually comment on.”

For people who want to stay involved in the process, Tiefenbach directed people to a public engagement website set up by the city, where people can go to monitor upcoming dates and other updates. Growth Policy Work Sessions, as needed, will take place on the third Thursday of every month before Planning Board Meetings, and videos of those meetings will be posted online. The next event is a virtual question and answer session scheduled for Sept. 6 at 5 p.m.

City staff also plan to have meetings and “visioning sessions” that will be announced on the growth policy update website and city website, as well as in newsletters. Drafts of documents will be posted online and people will be allowed to submit comments. Staff will also be available for meetings and to speak to civic organizations. There is also a section of the growth policy update that allows people to submit questions, which staff can then answer and make those answers public. There are also plans to set up a section of the website for submitting ideas, and another for discussion forums on the website about different topics related to the growth policy. The growth policy website also has surveys set up that people can take to share their feedback.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.