During a work session this week, the Whitefish City Council learned more about the potential traffic impacts from a development proposed for a plot of land along the city’s southern entrance at the southeast corner of the intersection of U.S. Highway 93 and MT Highway 40.
Called Alpine 93/40, the development could involve 210 units of housing on 11.63 acres of land. As per a development agreement voluntarily submitted with the annexation request, the developer intends to set aside 10% of the units for deed-restricted housing. Plans shared by the development team show one- and two-bedroom units of about 950 square feet spread out across six buildings, as well as plans to include up to 15,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space. Plans also include various amenities, including a workout facility, playground, dog park, a shared-use path and an improved crosswalk at Highway 40.
The work session took place after the council voted at a meeting earlier this month to delay making a decision on the developer’s request for annexation and a zone change. At that meeting, public comment was roughly split between people who supported the development, and those with concerns. Some members of both the council and public put forward their worries, and questions, about how traffic could affect the area, including the Emerald Heights neighborhood.
City staff also shared uncertainty about how to interpret Senate Bill 245, a bill passed during the recent legislative session that requires Montana municipalities with a population greater than 5,000 to allow multi-unit dwellings and mixed-use developments, including multi-unit dwellings, as permitted use of land located in a commercial zone. The concern from some members of the council and city staff was that the law was written in a way that would make conditional uses in commercial zones involving mixed-use developments allowable by right.
Brandon Theis, an engineer on the project with RPA Engineering, presented to the council on a traffic impact study that he characterized as not entirely complete at this early stage, and acknowledged there were some mistakes in the report. As Theis explained, the typical process following annexation involves finalizing the development design and then submitting it to the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and the city for approval. It’s a process that he said can take eight months, but that can potentially be sped up by submitting preliminary information in advance.
Theis said that based on the information they’ve compiled so far, they don’t expect the development to impact traffic enough to warrant MDT requiring they undertake mitigation efforts to improve traffic.
Councilor Frank Sweeney asked about efforts to prevent drivers from attempting a left turn off Highway 40 onto Emerald Heights, and Theis said that MDT had expressed some interest in “porkchop,” road installations for drivers making right turns from Emerald Heights, which could also prevent drivers from attempting a left turn off of Highway 40 onto Emerald Heights while heading from Columbia Falls to Whitefish.
In a letter emailed to the council, Jerry LaPrath, who is the president of the Emerald Heights HOA, argued that mistakes in the traffic study lead to it minimizing the impacts on Emerald Drive, and stated that he believes there needs to be “a mechanism” in place to financially compensate for the expenses HOA members would take on due to the increased road maintenance costs the traffic would lead to.
There are also concerns about a steep approach to Highway 93 from Emerald Drive. Theis said that they have looked at road grading on the Emerald Drive approach to Highway 93 and that they have plans to bring the road up 4 feet using fill material, to improve the grade on a 60-foot western section of the approach from a 10% grade to a maximum 5% grade.
Theis also suggested collaborative efforts between the development group, the city, the Emerald Heights Homeowners Association, and the Montana Department of Transportation to get the speed limit lowered on Highway 93 for a section coming off the nearby hill descending into Whitefish as a mitigation effort that could improve traffic safety in the area.
On the topic of SB 245, City Attorney Angela Jacobs said that after talking to Kelly Lynch, the executive director of the Montana League and Cities of Towns, her belief is that the law does prevent the city from subjecting the developer to a conditional use permit process for the retail aspects of the mixed-use development under its potential new zoning.
Jacobs pointed out that the development group submitted a list with the council’s work packet showing some of the uses that they would be willing to rule out for the property. Those include churches, kennels and animal training centers, marijuana facilities, nurseries and landscape materials sites, RV parks and campgrounds, caretaker units and certain duplexes, accessory dwelling units, manufactured homes and single-family dwellings.
Councilor Steve Qunell indicated an interest in having further discussions about limiting the potential commercial uses on the property.
Some commenters have focused on what they see as a need to wall off the nearby neighborhood from the development. At the Oct. 16 meeting, the development group shared more information about plans to install fencing between the development and Emerald Heights along the property line, with those fences potentially reaching a height of 6 feet 6 inches.
Mayor John Muhlfeld proposed that they eliminate 70 of the parking stalls on the eastern boundary of the development, to bring the project from 1.5 parking spaces per unit down to 1.1, something he suggested could prevent the elimination of some trees and vegetation and offer additional buffering between the development and nearby homes, without significantly impacting parking opportunities.
Alberto Valner, the lead developer, said that they would be willing to go down to 1.25 parking stalls per unit, and that the design is meant to accommodate commercial parking as well as residential.
Theis also told the council that they do not have plans for vacation rentals to be a part of the development. Qunell asked if they would be willing to deed-restrict another 10 percent of the units for people making between 100% and 120% of the area median income.
“We need that kind of housing, too,” Qunell said. “That’s a question that’s been roaming in the back of my mind. We always focus on this low end but we kind of miss the people that are in the middle sometimes. I don’t know if it would still pencil at that, but I would like you to consider that.”
“I mean, we’re happy to evaluate it,” Valner responded. “I think it becomes challenging because of construction costs, financing, etc. etc. But again, I think one of the things I want to stress is that we are not intending to have these as what I call luxury apartments.”
Valner also shared that they had thrown around the idea of setting aside a small number of units that would be offered first to local businesses for workforce housing, before being put out onto the market.
The council is expected to take up the development again at its Nov. 6 meeting.
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