Whitefish to Host Neighborhood Visioning Sessions as Part of Ongoing Growth Policy Update Process

The feedback from visioning sessions is meant to assist city officials as they update the growth policy, a master planning document that is supposed to guide the city through growth and development over a 20-year period

By Mike Kordenbrock
A Whitefish neighborhood on June 30, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As part of the ongoing Vision Whitefish 2045 effort to update the Whitefish Growth Policy, the city’s planning department will be kicking off the first of four neighborhood-specific visioning sessions this week, and the localized events are planned to continue into June.

Alan Tiefenbach, the long-range planner for the city who has helmed the growth policy update, has previously described visioning sessions as an early part of the growth policy update process intended to help the community form a mental picture of the future it wants, to establish shared values, and to articulate what makes the community special and how to protect valuable assets.

The upcoming visioning sessions will have a bit of a narrower focus. People are encouraged to bring a “smart device” to participate in online interactive polling during the sessions. People attending the sessions should plan on being asked to identify distinctive areas of the city and to share what is special about their neighborhood and specific geographic areas of the city. Some of the exercises will also give people a chance to describe what they believe to be the character of their neighborhoods, and how their neighborhoods and other areas can be improved.

The feedback from visioning sessions is meant to assist city officials as they update the growth policy, a master planning document that is supposed to guide the city through growth and development over a 20-year-period.

Tiefenbach said recently that his plan is to eventually review the information collected from visioning sessions and use it to help write a basic vision statement that will be broken up into different significant themes, and offer a framework for the growth policy update. About a year from now, Tiefenbach said the growth policy update process will begin focusing on land use and housing, something he said will probably continue until the end of 2025. Work on that section of the growth policy update will also incorporate community discussions. Meanwhile, city staff is also gathering detailed information, including 20-year-projections for things like economic development and population projections, which will also be used to inform the rewriting of the city’s growth policy.

All of the neighborhood visioning sessions are scheduled to go from 6 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., and people are encouraged to attend the sessions held at locations nearest to where they live. People can also consult a map that shows the different quadrants of the city designated for the various visioning sessions.

On April 25, a visioning session will be hosted at Grouse Mountain Lodge, located at 2 Fairway Drive, for people who, generally speaking, live in the western part of the city.

On May 9, a visioning session will be held at the Whitefish Armory building, located at 315 Armory Road, for people who live in southern and eastern portions of the city.

On May 23, a visioning session will be held at the Whitefish High School cafeteria, located at 1143 E. Fourth St., for people who live in downtown and on the avenues.

On June 13, a visioning session will be held at Whitefish Methodist Church at 1150 Wisconsin Ave., for people who live north of the railroad tracks.

Depending on the outcome of legal challenges to the Montana Land Use Planning Act, a piece of legislation also known as Senate Bill 382, which was passed into law during the last legislative session, the city’s growth policy could take on increased significance in the future. The law requires a growth policy for any city of over 5,000 people in a county of over 70,000 people. Under SB 382, local government is to emphasize public participation and comment during the creation or updating of its growth policy. The law further stipulates that once growth policy or regulations are adopted, review of site-specific developments are to occur at the city staff level.

As Tiefenbach shared at a growth policy kickoff meeting last August, SB 382 is interpreted as doing away with site-specific public meetings for developments, and instead places an emphasis on public participation during the growth policy update process. Approval or denial of development proposals would be done at the level of city staff, with the public having some opportunity to submit challenges to specific things they believe city staff incorrectly assessed in making its decision.

The two February visioning sessions held at Whitefish City Hall were attended by about 125 people. Part of those sessions involved breaking people up into groups of roughly 15 people for discussion and other visioning activities, including marking significant areas on maps.

Tiefenbach reviewed and interpreted the answers that groups cumulatively decided on in order to get a more broad understanding of what participants communicated. He also reviewed the results of mapping exercises, and tried to produce a map with variable, weighted shading.

“The overwhelming consensus I got, is people are still strongly in belief that there should be attainable housing,” Tiefenbach said, adding that there was some range in what people meant by that or how they believe it should be achieved. People also largely showed support for more housing for families and local workers, and less for investment properties and second homeowners. Support for protecting groundwater supplies, the Whitefish River and lakes, was also something people who attended the February visioning sessions seemed to largely support. Tiefenbach also noted that people tended to largely support there being multimodal transportation opportunities, and that there should be local jobs and an industry to support those jobs that is not just tourism.

“The idea is that Whitefish has these blue collar roots that are important to people, and it still kind of is, even though it’s (more) tourism. We’ve got the railroad and we’ve still got some working class, blue collar jobs, even if they’re diminishing,” Tiefenbach said. The full results of the February visioning session discussions can be found on the engagewhitefish.com website.

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