City examines architectural standards

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Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish.

The city’s Architectural Review Committee is looking for better ways to keep Whitefish looking sharp.

As outlined in the 2015 downtown master plan, the architectural review committee has been reviewing and updating design standards for Whitefish. A list of suggested changes by the committee was recently presented to City Council during a work session.

Wendy Compton-Ring, Senior Planner for the city, explained the update.

“The main thing that came out of the [master] plan was maintaining the form, scale and character of existing historic buildings and sites, and that new buildings be compatible with these buildings and looking at the review process,” Compton-Ring said. “During the summer of 2017 the architectural review committee looked over the downtown master plan standards and they were comfortable with the standards because they provide flexibility and there isn’t a specific look to Whitefish. Whitefish is eclectic, with a variety of designs, but no single look.“

The mandatory architectural-review standards apply to commercial, industrial and residential buildings two units or larger. The committee reviews building elevations, materials and colors, after which an applicant can then apply for a building permit.

Proposed changes to the city’s architectural standards include: requiring awnings downtown to line up with the curb rather than hang six inches past the curb as requested by the Public Works Department; clarifying the 25- to 50-foot “rhythm” for one- and two-story buildings downtown; requiring submittal documents to show the new building in context with existing buildings along the block; and creating a better visual document with photos and drawings to better convey the goals for the Old Town District. In additions, the committee would like to add standards for when a mock-up is required, standards for projects with multiple buildings and accessory commercial building and refinement of the standards for townhouse/duplex/triplex buildings.

Alongside those proposed changes, Councilor Frank Sweeney asked the committee if deviations from what the committee approved are often noticed after the building is complete.

Committee members Scott Freudenberger and Charlie Deese said yes, though the magnitude of those deviations vary.

Right now there’s no way to ensure the approved plans were built, Freudenberger said.

“There’s no follow up at the end of construction, so there’s no verification that they’ve gone and built what we put in place,” he said.

Deese agreed.

“The buck kind of stops with the building permit,” Deese said. “Unless it’s something that would trigger something in the building code, or something where the inspectors have to come back and review, then there’s no [reason] for us knowing or having any power.”

Compton-Ring said some probably unpopular solutions have been discussed to address the issue.

“We’ve talked about bonding, which wouldn’t be very popular, but maybe when someone submits an application include some sort of a bond that we hold up until they get their final inspections done with the architectural review committee. It’s sort of hard because once they started on a path it may be something that should have been caught way earlier, and I think we struggle to try to figure out exactly how to do the enforcement still,” she said.

However, Sweeney said bonding would be complicating an already complicated process.

“We get enough complaints about the cost of doing business in Whitefish. Bonding just seems like there will be a lot of screaming and bloody murder around here, and I’m happy to penalize somebody who doesn’t follow the rules, but I have a harder time saying everybody has to pay for the mistake of the idiot who chooses not to follow the recommendations,” he said.

In addition to the proposed changes, committee member Chris Barnes also floated the idea of an improved visual reference for developers looking for help with the approval process in Whitefish.

Barnes proposed revamping the committee’s page on the city of Whitefish website to feature a flow chart that makes the approval process more accessible and easy to understand.

“Some people might not know that they have to go to planning board, or architectural review, etc. so this would just give them the order and the process to go on,” Barnes said.

During public comment, Rhonda Fitzgerald said she feels the city is at a “tipping point” with regard to how the look of the city continues to develop.

“I think the community cares about what their downtown especially looks like. People think that the look and feel of the town is changing, not necessarily to the better,” she said.

Don Kaltschmidt, owner of the Don K car dealership, said he wants to speak for business owners who feel burdened by rules for development in Whitefish as well.

“One thing I’m concerned about is the business community in Whitefish, and what I mean by that is you all know how tough it is to make a business work in Whitefish, generally speaking,” he said. “If you’ve been here for any length of time, you’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I’m concerned that we continue to regulate more and more and we’re making it very costly to do business in Whitefish — especially for the small businesses, it’s really tough for them.”

The committee is expected to draft changes to the regulations, which would then go before the Planning Board and then the City Council for adoption.

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