Whitefish Development Board Votes Against Subdivision Proposal

Although the development board has offered a negative recommendation, the city council will have the final say when the subdivision appears on its April 15 agenda

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish City Hall. Beacon file photo

The Whitefish Community Development Board recently voted against requests from a development group that wants to build a new subdivision with 59 single family homes and nine two-family townhomes on an undeveloped 34-acre parcel off Flathead Avenue.

Doug Siderius, a Flathead County local, submitted an application to the city under the name Whitetail Ridge Holding for a development called Whitetail Ridge, which would be directly west of the Whitefish fire station and south of Sawtooth Drive and the O’Brien Bluffs subdivision.

The land, which is owned by Siderius Construction, is currently part of the county, but the city plans to make a decision on an annexation request next month.

At its March 21 meeting, the development board voted against Whitetail Ridge Holding’s requests, including a growth policy amendment that would designate the land for urban residential use, instead of its current designation for rural residential and planned industrial land use. The developer also requested a zoning map amendment, which would change the land from one-family residential and heavy industrial, to one- and two-family residential zoning.

The growth policy amendment and zone change request were voted against by a margin of 4-2, with Board Chair and City Councilor Steve Qunell and board member Toby Scott making up the two dissenting votes. A third agenda item, a request for a preliminary plat for the subdivision, was voted against unanimously by the board.

The board’s votes ran counter to the guidance of city staff, who had recommended approval of the developer’s requests, given that various conditions are agreed upon, including a tree preservation plan, various street improvements and a wetland mitigation plan. City staff did receive public comments that included support for the project, as well as concerns about traffic, impact to public services, buffering between neighboring areas, loss of wildlife and habitat, and the lack of housing for people with moderate incomes.

Although the development board has offered a negative recommendation, the city council will have the final say when the subdivision appears on its April 15 agenda.

In justifying its rejection of the requests, the board found that contrary to the findings of fact in the staff report, the development did not support the growth policy’s vision as it relates to affordable housing, and that it also did not support environmentally sensitive areas and an efficient transportation system.

Eric Mulcahy, a land use planner with Sands Surveying, presented on behalf of the developer. Mulcahy told the board there are essentially two ways to look at a subdivision, you can try to make it as compatible as you can with the existing density and subdivisions in the area, or you can try to add density to try to create some affordable housing.

“In this instance, the developers, two of which live in Whitefish — the Schellingers — and Doug Siderius who lives in Kalispell, wanted compatibility with this subdivision. So almost all of the lots, except for the townhomes on the very south end are 10,000 square feet or greater, which is comparable with the O’Brien Bluffs subdivision,” Mulcahy said.

Siderius also spoke to the board, and said he was approached by family friends a few years ago about buying the property.

“We went to city planning, we went to public works, we talked to multiple people from the city of Whitefish and got their opinion on what we should do before we ever, ever, ever even purchased this property. And so we got some positive ideas from them —what we didn’t do, what we shouldn’t do. So certainly we put a lot of thought into this. I realize the density certainly could be a lot more, we would be allowed to put a lot more density into this property. We’ve chosen not to. We’ve tried to be good neighbors,” Siderius said.

In explaining why he did not vote against the growth policy amendment and zone change request but voted against the preliminary plat, Qunell indicated that he thought the first two requests were appropriate changes for that area, but that he took issue overall with the absence of affordable housing in the plan.

Whitney Beckham, who also sits on the board, opposed all three requests, and described concerns with the order and process by which the development was appearing before the board for approval, saying that while she understood the growth policy request she did not think it should be the first part of the process they addressed. Earlier in the meeting, Qunell shared similar misgivings, but Wendy Compton-Ring, a senior planner for the city, explained that the board was delivering a recommendation, and that the property would be annexed by the time the council holds its hearing.

Another board member, John Heberling, explained that he believed the lack of affordable housing would have a negative impact on city services because he believes the development will bring additional people to Whitefish without providing any housing for the people who would provide services to those new residents.

Plans for the land include designating a 10.4-acre portion that bisects the property as public park space, which is about five times more park space than the city requires for a subdivision of this size. The development would not have direct access onto Flathead Avenue, or the newly constructed West 18th Street extension.

A traffic impact study submitted with the developer’s application estimates the subdivision would generate 686 daily vehicle trips. The nearby intersection of Baker Avenue and 13th Street has already been identified as having problems, and the development would result in “F” grade levels of service during peak hours. Staff recommended that the developer work with the city to ensure improvements are implemented to Baker Avenue and 13th Street to help maintain traffic flow amid continued development in the area.

As part of the project, the developer stated in application materials that it plans to reconstruct Flathead Avenue adjacent to the property in accordance with city road standards, and will also reconstruct West 18th Street from the property to Baker Avenue, with improvements along the southern portion between Flathead Avenue and the project’s western edge.