Whitefish Housing Nonprofit Joins Legal Fight to Defend Housing Bills

Shelter WF on Wednesday intervened as a defendant in a lawsuit against the state after Montana homeowners sued to block four housing development bills.

By Denali Sagner
A subdivision meets farmland off of Three Mile Drive on the westside of Kalispell on Sept. 22, 2021 Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Whitefish-based housing nonprofit Shelter WF has intervened in a legal battle between the state of Montana and a coalition of homeowners over four bipartisan bills designed to increase housing density in Montana’s urban areas.

Shelter WF on Wednesday intervened as a defendant in a lawsuit filed against the state by a group of 21 homeowners who allege a slate of housing development bills violate their constitutional protections and unjustly intervene in the affairs of local government. A Gallatin County District Court judge temporarily blocked two of the four bills challenged by the homeowners group last month, citing legal inconsistencies and concerns over public input in the development process.

“Shelter WF is a public benefit corporation that worked to conceptualize, draft, and shepherd the now-challenged laws through the legislative process, and it has a direct, substantial, and legally protectable interest in this litigation,” legal counsel for the organization wrote in the Wednesday motion.

A coalition of homeowners under the umbrella group Montanans Against Irresponsible Densification, or MAID, sued the state on Dec. 15, alleging that four bills passed by the Montana Legislature imposed development statues that would harm their neighborhoods and infringe on the rights of local governments to formulate their own zoning laws.

The four bills attempt to spur urban development by allowing homeowners to build duplexes and accessory dwelling units on single-family lots; permitting municipalities to create multi-unit and mixed-use developments; and mandating that cities and towns create long-range plans to manage projected growth and limit not-in-my-backyard-style opposition to individual housing developments.

Plaintiffs, including residents from Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls, argued in the lawsuit that they “will be adversely and negatively affected if the challenged measures are allowed to stand” and that their single-family neighborhoods “will be forced to undergo drastic and arbitrary changes in character.”

District Court Judge Mike Salvagni affirmed plaintiffs’ argument that increasing housing density through the challenged legislation would discriminate against homeowners in “peaceful and well-maintained single-family neighborhoods.” Salvagni in December temporarily blocked two of the four challenged bills and raised legal questions about a third.

Shelter WF President Nathan Dugan on Thursday told the Beacon that the challenged laws are critical in increasing the supply of affordable housing in the Flathead Valley, and across Montana.

“We’ve decided to intervene because we see these bills as fundamental to creating more housing affordability in the state, and we believe they deserve a robust defense,” Dugan said.

Shelter WF is the first party to intervene as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Founded in April 2022, Shelter WF describes itself as a community nonprofit formed with the purpose of making “homes in Whitefish more affordable.” The organization aims to “to fix the broken housing system in Whitefish, the Flathead Valley, and Montana” and “advocates for policy reforms that lead to an abundance of homes in all shapes and sizes.”

In the 12-page motion, representatives for Shelter WF defended the challenged legislation and outlined the nonprofit’s housing policy work, both during the 2023 legislative session and on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s Housing Task Force.

While plaintiffs allege that the housing legislation strips Montanans of their right to public participation in development decisions, Shelter WF’s motion argues that the legislative process that created the bills involved multiple opportunities for public input. Representatives for Shelter WF stated that “public participation process was robust” during meetings of the Governor’s Housing Task Force, the group that recommended many of the new housing policies.

Shelter WF in its motion also lauded the “notably bipartisan coalitions” that supported the housing bills during a legislative session marked by partisan conflict. Supporting entities included free market think tank the Frontier Institute; Americans for Prosperity; the Blackfeet Nation; the Billings Chamber of Commerce; the Associated Students at the University of Montana; progressive advocacy group Forward Montana; and the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Citing Shelter WF and Dugan’s work prior to and during the legislative session, the nonprofit in its motion argued that it is “uniquely situated to defend the now-challenged laws” and is “well-positioned to coordinate with other groups and individuals who sponsored and supported the bills to marshal the evidence needed to show that the challenged bills pass constitutional muster.”

Representatives for the nonprofit said they plan to bring arguments in defense of the housing legislation that the state has not already brought to the court.

“The new laws that form the largest body of Shelter WF’s work are now in peril,” the motion states. “Shelter WF is therefore uniquely situated to represent the interests of its members and the general public in relation to the substance of the challenged laws, when the current preliminary injunction has likely halted construction of desperately needed housing in this State.”

The full motion can be read below.

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