The Whitefish City Council on Oct. 2 postponed its vote on an annexation and zone-change request involving a prominent property at the corner of U.S. Highway 93 and Highway 40 — the southern gateway to Whitefish, where a developer wants to build up to 210 units of housing on 11.63 acres of land. The move to delay a decision came amid uncertainty over how to interpret new housing legislation, as well as a desire for more information about traffic impacts to the area.
The decision to delay a vote on the Alpine 93/40 development followed a presentation by developers and an hour of public comment, which was about evenly divided between supporters of the development and those who either oppose it, or who asked their city representatives to take time to improve upon the plan.
Council ultimately agreed to hold an Oct. 16 work session with the developer and resume the hearing at the council’s Nov. 6 meeting.
The property in question is located on the southeast corner of Highway 93 and Highway 40, directly across from the Town Pump. Ownership of the property is listed under the Potts and Pipi Trust, and paperwork filed with the city lists Tee Baur as the applicant and owner, with a P.O. Box in Linville, N.C., and an address at an office building in St. Louis, Mo.
The developer voluntarily included details of the proposal within the annexation request in the form of a development agreement. That agreement describes plans to build no more than 210 units, with 10% of them deed-restricted so as to participate in the city’s Legacy Homes Program. Under the proposal, the one- and two-bedroom units would be 40-feet high and about 950 square feet, and spread out across six buildings, according to a presentation from the developer.
The development agreement further describes plans to include no more than 15,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space. The development would maintain 40% of the land as open space, with other amenities such as a workout facility, a playground, a leasing facility, dog park, internal sidewalks, a bus stop, and an improved crosswalk at Highway 40 West, as well as the construction of a shared-used path along the Highway 93 South frontage from Emerald Heights Drive to Highway 40 West.
Going into the meeting, city staff had reviewed the application and recommended the council approve annexation of the property and the zone change, on the condition that a portion of Emerald Drive in the annexation area be upgraded to city street standards, and that maintenance of a Highway 93 shared path, the sidewalk on Emerald Drive, and street trees and internal landscaping be the responsibility of the property owner.
During discussion after the public hearing, the council went back and forth discussing Senate Bill 245, a new law requiring Montana municipalities with a population greater than 5,000 people to allow multi-unit dwellings and mixed-use developments, including multi-unit dwellings, as permitted uses of land located in a commercial zone. Throughout the discussion, the council inquired about the new law’s implications to City Attorney Angela Jacobs, City Manager Dana Smith and Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring about Senate Bill 245,
The law defines mixed-use development as “consisting of residential and nonresidential uses in which the nonresidential uses are less than 50% of the total square footage of the development and are limited to the first floor of buildings that are two or more stories.”
Smith, the city manager, wondered whether the city could require the developer to go through the conditional use permitting approval process (CUP) for the commercial portion of the mixed-use development, and said she does not believe a CUP would be allowed given the share of housing included in the development exceeds the 50% threshold.
Jacobs said more research is needed, but that her interpretation is conditional uses are allowed under SB 245. She conceded that firm answers may not yet be available because the bill is largely untested, adding that “it’s not like the Legislature gave us much to work with.”
If the annexation is approved, the property would be zoned as WB-T, which is the city’s transitional zoning district. Permitted uses in the WB-T include accessory dwelling units, daycares and daycare centers, public utility buildings, publicly owned or operated buildings, residential, manufactured homes, single family dwellings, and multifamily development.
Conditional uses in WB-T include churches, hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes or personal care facilities, kennels and animal training centers, light assembly, manufacturing fabricating and processing, marijuana facilities, medical clinics, breweries and distilleries, nurseries and landscaping materials, offices, recreational facilities, guides and outfitters, research labs and institutions, RV parks and campgrounds, boarding houses, caretaker units, restaurants and veterinary offices.
Councilor Frank Sweeney floated one possible solution, suggesting that a more detailed development agreement could be worked out that explains in more detail how the property could be used. Jacobs explained that the developer could offer to restrict the property’s uses in exchange for receiving city utilities that come with annexation.
“I hope the developer gets this message,” Sweeney said in the waning minutes of the meeting. “I think this is a great project. There are some unanswered questions, that if, for example, we were able to have some assurances that they would have to come back in for conditional use permits for some of the commercial, if they wanted to do some of those things in that zone, that would be just fine with us. I think that would give us in the community a lot of clarity.”
Sweeney and Councilor Steve Qunell both expressed a desire to have more information about traffic impacts from the development. A traffic impact study is ultimately required before building permits can be issued. City officials said they intend to commission but have not yet completed a traffic study.
As Smith noted, the city will not have to comply with SB 245 indefinitely, but that it won’t have an alternative until the completion of its new growth policy, which is dictated by SB 382.
The developer, Alberto Valner, delivered a presentation to the council by explaining that he began visiting Whitefish about eight years ago, and purchased a home in Whitefish about five years ago. Valner is the president of KIBO Group, a real estate development company in Southern California. During his remarks, Valner referenced the need for housing in Whitefish, and emphasized that they are asking for no variances and no modifications to what is allowed except for those provided under the Legacy Homes Program.
“This is the main entrance into our community and, to be honest, it deserves better than what is there now at any of its existing corners, or another storage facility. As you will see in our presentation we’re trying to create a landmark gateway to our community that we can all be proud of,” Valner said.
Those speaking in support of the project referenced the need for housing in the community, and proponents included multiple business owners. Other proponents were board members of the nonprofit Shelter WF, including its president and city council candidate Nathan Dugan, as well as Daniel Sidder, the executive director of nonprofit Housing Whitefish, which works with the Whitefish Housing Authority. Kevin Abel, the president of the Logan Health Medical Center and Logan Health Whitefish, also spoke in support.
One supporter, Jeff Carl, called it a tough decision, and said he did not want to be insensitive to anyone else.
“I just think that we asked a lot of people to come into this town and work and to provide for this community. But then we say well, you can’t live here. We just don’t have it. And I think this is a solution that this group is trying to put together to kind of remedy that in a way. It won’t fix everything, like they said, but I think it’ll help a lot of us businesses and business operators to have people that work for us that are part of the community instead of most of our employees driving in Kalispell or somewhere else,” Carl said.
The majority of opponents live in the nearby neighborhood of Emerald Heights or on Emerald Drive. Their concerns included increased traffic through their neighborhood, a lack of fencing or barriers between the development’s apartment buildings and nearby homes, groundwater issues, and increased traffic at the nearby intersection.
Jerry LaPrath, the president of the Emerald Heights home owner’s association, said he felt like the cart had gotten ahead of the horse. Reiterating concerns about traffic impacts, including the potential for more vehicle collisions, he said impacts to Emerald Heights roads and attendant maintenance costs needed to be addressed. He also called for a barrier between properties to reduce noise, trespassing and conflict, and said he felt the density being proposed was excessive.
“These deficiencies need to be addressed and solutions entered into the proper agreements prior to your approval and consideration,” LaPrath said.
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