The Whitefish City Council voted Monday night to approve two developments that are intended to bring a combined 252 units of housing to the city, including 29 units that are deed-restricted for affordability.
The larger of the two projects, called Alpine 93/40, is planned for an 11.6-acre piece of land at the city’s southern entrance, on an undeveloped corner at the intersection of U.S. Highway 93 and Montana Highway 40. The development team behind that project, including lead developer Alberto Valner, has described plans to build 210 units of housing, with 10% of the units deed-restricted and the total units spread out across six buildings including a mixture of one- and two-bedroom units of about 950 square feet. The developer also intends to incorporate about 15,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space, and other amenities, including a workout facility, playground, dog park, shared-use path, and an improved crosswalk at Highway 40.
The Alpine 93/40 project was the lengthier of the two public hearings. The council had initially held a hearing on the development in early October, but decided at the time to postpone making a decision due to questions and concerns raised about the project. In the interim, the council held a work session, during which they had additional discussions with the development team about the project, including about some of the traffic concerns raised by residents of the nearby Emerald Heights neighborhood.
A development agreement put forward by the developer was updated after the work session to include additional guarantees about traffic design and control measures for Emerald Drive, as well as a reduction in parking spaces to increase the buffering zone between the development and the nearby neighborhood, and limitations on what commercial uses the mixed-use portion of the development could see.
The land for the development is currently outside city limits, and so the council Monday night voted on an annexation request and a subsequent zone change, as well as an agreement the developer voluntarily submitted.
In the leadup to the hearing, the council received a total of about 50 emailed comments, with roughly two-thirds of them urging the council to approve the project.
Supportive comments included praise for Valner’s character, concerns that the land might otherwise be used for something like storage facilities, and arguments outlining the need for more housing in Whitefish, in some cases because businesses and other organizations have had problems retaining employees due to the city’s housing market.
Less than 10 people weighed in on the project during public comment at the council’s Monday night meeting.
Among those who spoke in favor of the project at Monday night’s meeting was Nathan Dugan, a city council candidate, who said he was delivering his comments in his capacity as president of the nonprofit Shelter WF.
Emerald Heights Homeowner’s Association President Jerry LaPrath was among those at the council’s Monday night meeting who continued to critique the proposed development, including by repeating his previous belief that there needs to be something in place to compensate HOA members for increased road maintenance costs that could result from greater traffic on Emerald Drive due to the development. LaPrath also wondered if the project might have inadequate parking. Reducing the number of parking spaces from 1.5 per unit to 1.1 was a suggestion from Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld during an October work session. Final plans showed 1.35 parking spaces per unit, and City Planning Director Dave Taylor said later in the meeting that based on current nationwide trends he thought that was a decent number of parking spaces.
Mayre Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead asked the city council to hold off on a decision until an independent transportation study is available and expressed concerns about the impact of Senate Bill 245, a new piece of legislation that raises a number of use-by-right issues for mixed-used developments that meet certain criteria. The new law requires 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. In allowing mixed-use developments as permitted uses in commercial zones, the legislation has been interpreted as making all other conditional uses in commercial zones as permitted uses.
“We think it’s high time that you join with other cities in the state and challenge the provisions of Senate Bill 245,” Flowers said.
A lack of clarity on how to interpret the law was among the unanswered questions from the council’s initial October hearing. It was addressed at the work session, and the developer ultimately agreed to strike certain land uses from the list of those that would be allowable by right after annexation.
Representatives for the property owner, Tee Baur, also asked that the city delay recording the annexation for 30 days. The sale of the land to the developer is in escrow for 30 days pending approval of the annexation. Baur’s concern, according to his attorney, is that if the sale for some reason fell through, he would not want to proceed with the annexation. In response to the request, the council voted unanimously to amend its motion to annex the property to include a provision that would delay recording the annexation for 30 days, as per Baur’s request.
Ahead of a final vote, which was unanimously in favor with the exception of absent Councilor Andy Feury, Muhlfeld remarked on the concerns brought forward by Emerald Heights residents. Muhlfeld said he believed the developer had gone above and beyond in efforts to mitigate homeowner concerns, and emphasized the public benefits, including housing.
“The folks at Emerald Heights, with all due respect, you are aware that you invested in property adjacent to one of the busiest intersections in the North Valley. And I’m sympathetic to that,” Muhlfeld said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of uses that could be permitted or otherwise conditionally permitted under county zoning that would be a heck of a lot more significantly detrimental to your property values and the safety concerns that were raised at the original meeting.”
808 Edgewood Place
The second development approved by the council Monday night is planned for a 1.66-acre piece of land on the 800 block of Edgewood Place, and will include 42 units of housing with eight units deed-restricted for affordability, all of which will be spread out across two buildings. The project could involve condominiums or apartments. The developers behind the project are Holbrook McCartney and Whitefish City Councilor Ben Davis. Davis recused himself from the hearing on the development, and sat in the audience for the duration, returning to his seat only after the council had voted and moved on to its next agenda item.
The project includes about 21.4% of the land set aside as open space, and in exchange for deed-restricted eight units, the developers asked for some benefits through the city’s Legacy Homes Program to allow them increase building height, and reduce the number of parking spaces, and increase density.
The Planning Board last month voted to recommend the city council approve the developer’s request for a zone change and planned unit development.
Construction is planned to take place in multiple phases, with the first involving the construction of 26 units. The project also includes plans for a retaining pond to collect stormwater runoff and water.
The council voted unanimously in favor of the project, which will bring even more development to an area near where the council approved a 146-unit development brought forward last summer by Columbia Falls developer Mick Ruis.
Eric Mulcahy, a land use planner with Sands Surveying, was among those who presented on behalf of the developers. He characterized the project as “the definition of infill,” saying it’s a 1.6-acre property with one house on it in the middle of Whitefish with access to a newly reconstructed street and a shared use path with access to bike and pedestrian paths and a bus stop.
“That said, we also realize that with infill there comes compatibility issues and we recognize the single family neighbors in this neighborhood and the fact that they might view this as not being compatible, however with infill, the definition of infill is you’re transitioning neighborhoods,” Mulcahy said. “Essentially to get the density we have to put projects in what was typically [zoned] all single family and in this particular neighborhood the city has identified this area, particularly adjacent, for multifamily, and we have seen multifamily developments occur in this neighborhood over the last 20 years.”
The council heard Monday night from two nearby residents who acknowledged the city’s need for housing, but mentioned their concerns about being surrounded by development. One woman described flooding issues nearby with standing water, and said that her house will now be surrounded “on all sides by paved roads and a parking lot, changing the entire character of my property and my neighborhood.”
Kelly Medelman, another nearby resident, echoed similar concerns.
“One can’t help but notice how much high density is in this neighborhood. And I appreciate the idea of infill, and it being compatible, but gosh, there’s so much high density in Colorado and Edgewood, and this whole neighborhood.”
Medelman said Davis has been a great neighbor for years, and that she hopes on a human level they can talk about things and find solutions.
Richard Hildner of Flathead Families for Responsible Growth, also told the city that while he does not oppose the development, he wanted to draw attention to the traffic study associated with the project, saying that it’s incrementally increasing pressure on the Wisconsin Corridor and that “it’s time for the city to address the inadequacies of our transportation infrastructure.”
Also weighing in was Dugan of Shelter WF, who said that while he was generally supportive of the project, he recognized the disproportionate amount of development in that area of town, and shared that he hopes development will be more spread out going forward.
Councilor Rebecca Norton did ask the development team if more could be done to create additional buffering between single family homes nearby, but was essentially told that on the north end of the development it could create issues by cramping the covered parking stalls planned in the area, which could make it difficult for vehicles to get in and out of. Norton also tried unsuccessfully to add a condition of approval that the developer agree not build basements, something she said could be a preventative measure to avoid exacerbating flooding issues. The motion was opposed by Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano, Qunell and Muhlfeld, and failed on a 3-2 vote, with Sweeney voting in favor.
“If basements are built on an area with this much impervious surface, I really think it will go on to the neighbor’s property,” Norton said.
Qunell cast doubt on the efficacy of such a measure, and said that he doesn’t think developers are building new basements in that area, and if they did plan to, they would need a groundwater study through an engineering study, which would determine whether or not basements could be built.
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